Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #4 - a review of 2018

December 7, 2018
00:0000:00

In this episode, senior writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart look back at the year at GDS.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS, and today I’m joined by Sarah Stewart, who is also a senior writer at GDS.

Sarah Stewart:
Hello, and thanks for having me.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s really great to have you here, Sarah. I mean, we spend all week sitting opposite each other across a desk and now we’re going to sit across from each other and speak into microphones.

Sarah Stewart:
I quite like the idea that I’m assuming the role of guest speaker with specialist knowledge of any one subject.

Angus Montgomery:
You are the one with the expertise here, let’s face it.
The reason that it’s me and Sarah doing this podcast… If you’ve listened to GDS podcasts before you’ll know that what we’ve done previously is, kind of, either Sarah or I have interviewed an expert speaker, so we’ve had Neil Williams on GOV.UK, Terence Eden on open standards and emerging technology, and we’ve also spoken to the GDS Women’s Network.

But, what we want to do with this podcast, because it is the final podcast of 2018, is do a look at the year in review at GDS, what GDS has done over the last year, the things it’s achieved, the things it’s launched and kind of just go back through those and our take on them, we’ve even got some audio clips from the people who were involved as well.

I think Sarah and I, because we work across GDS and our job is to help people, kind of, tell the story of their work, we’ve kind of had a ringside seat for a lot of this stuff.

GDS’s work has kind of been split, broadly, into three themes this year, and this podcast is going to split into those three themes as well. Those three themes are:

Sarah Stewart:
Transformation; collaboration and; innovation.

Angus Montgomery:
Full marks for that.

Sarah Stewart:
Thank you very much.

Angus Montgomery:
So, transformation, collaboration and innovation is, kind of, how GDS talks about its work. when we first started to use those terms, at Sprint ’18, which was the big event that we held back in May, where we, kind of, talked to the rest of government and the rest of the wider public about what we were doing. So, let’s get into it…

Oh yes, sorry, just to… Someone who did also speak at Sprint, as you well know, and you’ve worked closely with him throughout this year…

Sarah Stewart:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden, and here’s what he had to say about us:

[Audio starts]
‘Though transformation innovation and collaboration you’ve not only saved billions of pounds across government, but you’ve changed the way people interact with government every day. What you do really matters, it really does genuinely improve people’s experience of government in their day-to-day lives.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
Oliver Dowden there really summing up what GDS does and why it’s here, and it’s really nice to hear that sort of thing from senior backing.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, exactly. I think the really encouraging thing about having Oliver Dowden overseeing the work of GDS is that he really understands the link up between creating a modern government and involving the tech sector. We have to be honest about the limits of government, we don’t have all the answers, but what we do have, in this country, is an amazing tech sector that’s attracting billions of pounds of inward investment. We’ve got some amazing companies just literally down the road, of course we should be partnering with them. It just makes sense for us to all link up, the tech sector, the public sector, and push our digital agenda forward.

Angus Montgomery:
I think he’s been really heavily involved in GDS, particularly recently with the innovation stuff as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, I suppose we’ll come to that in a bit, but he’s been really behind… He announced the Innovation Strategy, I think the emerging themes from that will really address things like how we connect more with the private sector and how we focus on upskilling existing civil servants, and also policy makers so that they understand emerging tech. I was thinking about it the other day, about how if people are buying technology, so people are utilising technologies in government, those people who are buying also need to understand what those technologies do.
So, in the same way that you’d go to the doctor and say, “I’ve got this ailment” and the doctor prescribes the information and the medicine, and you expect them to know how it works as well, it’s not just going in and taking something off the shelf. So, I think that’s a really encouraging thing that’s he’s championing as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant. Top marks Oliver.

So, the first theme we’re going to discuss is transformation. We published a Transformation Strategy at the beginning of 2017, and I think 2017 and 2018 have been the years when we’ve really started to deliver against it. I think we’re now halfway through it as well?

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right.

Angus Montgomery:
Growing common components is a big thing, because I think one of the aims of the Transformation Strategy was to drive common components across government, and by common components, obviously, we mean things that can be built once and used again and again by departments, like GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay. This year has seen some really impressive examples of services using those things.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they’re using GOV.UK Pay to help people who need to pay for emergency passports. Also, increasingly, GP surgeries are using GOV.UK Notify to remind patients of their appointments, which I really need. I mean, it’s improving efficiencies as well, because of the amount of people who don’t turn up to appointments and just that little reminder is so helpful, and it’s on your phones.

Angus Montgomery:
They always show those dire warnings in GP surgeries, don’t they, of the number people who’ve missed appointments that month. I know GP’s surgeries aren’t over resourced a lot of the time, so it’s a real drain on them if that happens. I think things that will prevent that from happening are amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
The really cool thing about these common components, and especially Notify, is that it’s really meeting people where they’re at. People are looking at their phones, people spend so much time on their phones it makes sense to have that reminder to your phone. It’s just efficient and it just works. So, I’m not surprised that take-up has been so incredible.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the other things that’s quite exciting is because a lot of these common components are reaching maturity now, like they’ve been around for a year or so, but what’s starting to happen is you’re starting to see services using them all together. I think in the Disclosure and Barring Service are one of the first people to do that, and we’ve got some audio:

[Audio starts]
‘We’ve relied heavily on GaaP components. We’re the first service to integrate with three of the GaaP components all at once.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
There you go, the first service to integrate all three GaaP components at one. So, I think that’s really exciting, seeing these things not used in isolation but seeing whole services built on these things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, and that’s been a huge emphasis this year, end-to-end service design, and if you can incorporate those common components… It just makes sense, doesn’t it, going offline and online might be an option for your particular service, but it’s nice to have that option to integrate more if you need them to.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, and making it easy for the teams as well. I think if you’re starting to use Pay and Notify platform as a service you, as a developer working on that team, have got all this stuff just to hand that you can build a service really quickly around. That was, kind of, always the government’s platform vision, and it’s really amazing to see that starting to happen.

Sarah Stewart:
I can’t remember where I was, actually, I went to do some filming this year and think it might be with DVSA, but they talked about how it’s not just having common components that you can just take off the shelf and your relationship with GDS is done, there is a continued relationship. They invite feedback and they want to support you in your use of it. So, I think we’ve done quite a lot of work in terms of… Maybe helping isn’t the right word, but like guiding people and being a supportive friend of take-up and how they’re going to integrate it into their systems.

Angus Montgomery:
Again, that is, to me, exactly that. That’s one of the reason these things are so amazing, is because they’re designed and built for government, but you’re not just designing and building something and handing it over to a team and saying, “Go ahead and use that.” You have a relationship. If you’re using Pay you have a relationship with that Pay team, you can give your feedback on it and they can make the product better based on your feedback. It’s this symbiotic thing which is really cool.
The other thing that we should probably mention, which happened, I think, a couple of weeks ago, is that GOV.UK Notify won a civil service award, or the team that build it.

Sarah Stewart:
Wowser, that’s really cool.

Angus Montgomery:
Wowsers indeed. A big hats off to that team, who are awesome. They won an award, I think, for operational delivery. But, basically, the award recognised the work that that team has done, not just to develop a product but also to support it and work with government services to make sure that Notify is a great thing to use, so that’s really cool. But one of the things we’ve started to do a lot more this year is work more closely with local authorities. What is it about local authorities? Why should we work closely with them?

Sarah Stewart:
I suppose, it’s because they’re the ones who are delivering user-focused services, and because the needs of the people that they’re dealing with are so complex, and the services that they use are so complex as well. So, of course it makes sense to help them simplify how they’re interacting and give them the tools that make that process a lot more straightforward and a lot more efficient.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s brilliant. A lot of the challenges that the government has had that GDS has been working on, those are replicated in local authorities and, like you say, they’re the ones that are, kind of, delivering a lot of these services, like blue badges and collecting bins and things, the things that, kind of, really rile you up if they’re not done properly. So, GDS being able to get involved in that is really exciting.
I think there’s a clip from one of the local authorities we’ve been working with, and they use the Digital Marketplace, that’s Hackney Borough Council, and they’re doing some really exciting stuff as well.

[Audio starts]
‘One of my personal favourite projects that we’ve used Digital Marketplace for in the last year was a piece of work to examine what the opportunity is to use digital to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers, which was incredibly valuable for the council and for our residents, but also could develop a true partnership as well as long at some longer-term opportunities to use technology very differently.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
That’s Matthew Cain who’s, I think, head of digital at Hackney Borough Council, and that’s a really interesting example of the kind of thing a local authority does. The recruitment of foster carers and using digital, and in that case a digital marketplace, to improve something like that is really cool.

Sarah Stewart:
The other thing that’s going to support that, so it’s not just an ad-hoc relationship that we’re having with local authorities, is the publication of the Local Digital Declaration as well, which shows our commitment to working with local authorities across the whole of the public sector. I think it has 100 signatories on it now?

Angus Montgomery:
I think there are 100 signatures.

So, we’re one of the co-publishers, I think with the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government and various local authorities, and there are something like 100 signatories already. Yes, it’s a commitment from all the signatories that they will follow these principles of digital development, which are the things that you would hope they’re talking about, like focusing on user needs, using the right technology, and all that sort of thing.

Yes, you’re right, it’s really interesting. I think the world of local authorities is so big, there are so many and they’re delivering so many different, often quite small and challenging, services. It, kind of, seems like a world that is really hard to get a handle on. I think that it’s really interesting to see GDS approaching that in a kind of structured way, through the Local Digital Declaration, but also giving really tangible things that can help, like common components. It’s amazing to see the progress that has already happened with it as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Just on that, I used to work for a charity and when people were interacting with their local authorities it wasn’t just the case that they were going just for one thing, they had a host of different needs that needed to be addressed, and local authorities are the people who are servicing those needs and making sure that all of those things get done.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, 2018 was a year in which GDS launched quite a few things and updated quite a few things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the GDS Design System.

Angus Montgomery:
The GDS Design System, which I think is really… This appeals to the geek side of me because this is, basically, a collection of all the patterns and components that a designer or a front-end developer and, for the most part, would use to create a government service. So, you’ve got things there telling you about how to design a button, which typeface to use, which colours to use-

Sarah Stewart:
Why is that important?

Angus Montgomery:
It’s important because, in much the same way as GaaP components, it’s about making it easier for those teams to use something so that they don’t have to design their own button style or design their own dropdown menu, or whatever. There is one that they can just pull the code from and put it into their service.

Also, then it provides consistency. So, if all the government services are using the same things… And the things in the design system are heavily user researched, so, it’s the kind of GDS principle of, like, “Do the hard work for service teams, but also provide a consistent experience across all things.” If you want to lose an hour or two then go and have a mess about in it, because there’s something really cool stuff to find and look at.

Sarah Stewart:
The geek emerges.

Angus Montgomery:
Exactly.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a year of launching and relaunching at GDS, so we introduced a new spend controls process and we’re rewriting the service standard, which you know more about than I do, Angus.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, the service standard is really exciting, and we’ve blogged quite a bit about this already, I think Stephen Gill and Lou Downe, who are both working on it, have written quite a lot. The Digital Service Standard has been around for quite some time, and was initially developed, primarily, to help develop digital touchpoints and digital services, and is focused on that. The idea of the rewrite is to help government and teams within government to think about whole end-to-end services, what that means and how they can help the user do something from the very start of a service to the very end of it.

It’s going to be really exciting and interesting to see what that means and how that works. There are quite a lot of blog posts about it as well, if you should go to the GDS blog to find out more, as you should do for all of the things that we’ve discussed.

Sarah Stewart:
Excellent plug.

Angus Montgomery:
Excellent plug... there is plenty of amazing writing about all of these things, even if I do say so myself!

Sarah Stewart:
I’ll tell you what else is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
What else is exciting, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
GOV.UK is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
GOV.UK is never not exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a big year for the team behind GOV.UK because they’ve been doing some super-cool work with organising their content. So, they’ve been doing supervised machine learning to organise all of the content on GOV.UK, or in certain sections they’re organising their content. That means that we can do cool things, like voice activation.

And the example is, if you speak into a Google Voice system and say, “How old do I need to be to drive a car?” the information that is surfaced is GOV.UK content, and this content is the best, it’s the most authoritative.

Angus Montgomery:
That is amazing. I think what is really amazing is, like you say, they sorted out the structure of the sites and then they did the fixing the basics, solving hard problems and all that stuff that GDS says all the time. This is a really good example of that. Like, sorting out the content, which was a really hard and a really challenging thing to do, but having done that they can do really exciting whizzy stuff on it. We were discussing the word whizzy just yesterday, I think.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, the amount of times…

Angus Montgomery:
But, it is whizzy. I think you said it was a public-school boy word, which I’m pretty-

Sarah Stewart:
Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

Angus Montgomery:
No offence taken.

But, it is whizzy stuff, like voice activation and like the step-by-step work that they’re doing as well, which kind of takes all the content involved in a particular service, like you used the learning to drive example, and puts that all in order for the user to be able to navigate really quickly and easily, and to understand where the are in the process.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s so brilliant, because when you think about things, life impacting things, like learning how to drive, it can be so daunting. If you can just shine a light in the darkness and say, “Look, these are the eight steps that you need to get your driving license, let’s tackle step one. Let’s do it all in the same journey, and at least you can tick that off.” How amazing is that? You don’t need to rootle around the internet, you don’t need to Google the internet, that’s another phrase we’ve been using a lot recently, to find the answers. It’s just all in one place. It’s bliss.

Angus Montgomery:
It is, and it’s great. It has been a really big year for GOV.UK and it’s really amazing to see them developing this stuff and the new stuff that’s happening.

Plug time as well, if you want to find out more about this, we did a podcast with Neil Williams, who, up until recently, was head of GOV.UK, he left in September, I think it was, to go and be head of digital at Croydon Council, but before he left we recorded a podcast with him in which he said this:

[Audio starts]
‘Absolutely, we’re iterating widely again, I’d say, so it’s back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re actually able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly, again. So, some of the stuff we’re doing now is actually greenfield stuff, again, we’re back to a lot of the ideas we had, way back when in the early days of GDS, around making the publishing system really intuitive and giving data intelligence to publishers so that they can understand how services are performing and see where to prioritise and get that really rich insight about how their stuff, as a department, is working for users.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, yes, we talked a lot about transformation, and it’s time to talk…

Sarah Stewart:
About collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
About collaboration.

Sarah Stewart:
What do we mean by collaboration?

Angus Montgomery:
What do we mean? Well, collaboration, basically, means working together, which is the thing-

Sarah Stewart:
I do actually know the answer to this, sorry, in case the audience don’t think I don’t know what collaborative means.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s just be clear, this is an interview trope which is to ask a question that you know the answer to in order to illicit a comment from the person that you’re talking to. Just because we’re asking each other these things doesn’t mean that…

Sarah, tell me about GDS and what it does… We do actually know what this means, or I think we know what this means, anyway.

Collaboration, in order to answer your question, Sarah, basically means working together, which is, of course, what GDS has done since the very beginning. So, GDS was set up to work with and across government to help them develop digital services, transform what they’re doing and make things better for users. We can’t do this stuff unless we are collaborating, unless we are working together.

We mentioned Sprint earlier as well, which is the big event that we held back in May, where GDS and other people from across movement talked about the really cool things that they were doing, and there was a strong collaboration angle throughout that.

And there were a lot of really good case studies, interesting case studies of work that was going on. After the day we were looking back on Twitter and talking to people who’d been at the event and they were saying, “This is one that made me cry, and I didn’t expect to,” “I went to this workshop, I came out and I was so emotional that I was weeping.” It was a workshop about open standards, and this was the case study that they used:

[Audio starts]
‘Hands off. He’s got a belt on, get his belt. Up… Okay. In you come, fella. Alright.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, for the benefit of people who obviously couldn’t see what was happening, because that was a video clip and we played it on a podcast, which is an audio medium, so it was quite a lot of indiscrete splashing, but what was actually happening there was that was someone being rescued-

Sarah Stewart:
A real person.

Angus Montgomery:
That was a field video-clip, or however you describe it, from the RNLI, rescuing someone from the River Thames. The reason that was played in an open standards workshop is open standards is super important when it comes to things like emergency services, because you might get various emergency services, like the police or RNLI or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency responding to various incidents at the same time, and they need to be able to share information about those incidents really, really quickly.

Sarah Stewart:
The profound takeaway from this is, obviously, people’s lives are being saved, but the launch time for lifeboats is reduced from 10-15 minutes to under 2 minutes.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s incredible.

Sarah Stewart:
If you can think of what can happen, even in two minutes, to someone who’s in the water for that long…

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, falling in the Thames in December, and you don’t want to be in there for 10-15 minutes. So it’s amazing.

I mean, obviously this got people really emotional because you’re seeing a video of someone, literally, getting pulled out of the Thames, and the work that you have done to develop and open standard or to develop a common system for sharing information, which seems like a really abstract thing, but then you see the real-world example of this stuff and that’s really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
We spoke to Terence Eden, who’s the open standards lead at GDS, about open standards, and if you want to find out more listen to that podcast. There are some things that you think are so mundane, in a theoretical sense, but the real-world practical outcome is so so important. So, I highly recommend you listen to that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, another plug for the podcast, which is a good thing.

Also, one of the big things, staying on this collaboration theme, that we’ve been doing is helping government work together and build capability through things, like the GDS Academy, which has gone from strength to strength this year.

Sarah Stewart:
There have been some big milestones. We’re nearing 10,000, would we call them students? Colleagues?

Angus Montgomery:
Students/colleagues/civil servants/people trained through the-

Sarah Stewart:
Those with a thirst to learn. We hit almost 10,000 who have passed through the GDS academy and about 1,000 of those students have been through the Agile foundation course.

Angus Montgomery:
This is really important work because it’s showing people the opportunities that a digital government brings for their skills and capabilities, and for their jobs as well. I mean, people are training in new and interesting jobs because of the GDS Academy, and that’s really exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
What I think is super-cool about it is that people can feel left behind when things move forward and when people move from different processes. Digital can be quite a daunting thing and something that they feel like might be a stumbling block to them or might prevent them from continuing their work in the civil service, but what the academy does is say, “Actually, we can support you in your knowledge and we can support you in your growth, and if you want to learn about all these really cool and interesting things that we’re doing, and the ways of working that are open to you as well.”
So, we’re not just abandoning people who don’t have those digital expertise, we’re saying, “Here is a foundation course that will help you get up to speed and give you the confidence to go and bring it back to your departments and deploy it.”

Angus Montgomery:
You’re right. I think one of the things about digital, and not just in government, I suppose, but in general, is that it can be seen as quite a clique-y thing, it’s like, “If you understand this digital thing then you’re part of it, but if you don’t then,” you know, as you say, “You might get left behind.” The idea that we’re, through the GDS Academy, able to bring people into this is really cool, and makes it not a clique-y thing but make it a big, kind of, community, potentially, of civil servants, and that’s really cool.

Like we say, we’re approaching 10,000 students, we’ve got new academy classrooms in the GDS building, I think just the floor below us as we speak.

Sarah Stewart:
It looks very swish.

Angus Montgomery:
Which does look very swish, indeed.

They did a pop-up in Canada as well, which was quite good.

Sarah Stewart:
Did they?

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, they went over there and spoke to the Canadian government about what they’d done at the GDS Academy, and after that the Canadian government set up their own. So, there you go…

And it’s been an exciting year for GOV.UK Verify as well, the government’s online identity assurance programme, because the standards and guidelines which currently underpin the way Verify works are now being opened up to the private sector to build on. And what this means is that in principle, the same digital identity platform that helps you check your state pension could in future also help you check your savings account too and other things that you do in your kind of day to day non-government life so that’s really exciting as well.

So... we’ve done transformation…

Sarah Stewart:
We’ve done collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s move onto innovation.

Sarah Stewart:
Which I feel is my specialist subject. Do you want to do the music?

Angus Montgomery:
What? Is this innovation music? Oh…

Sarah Stewart:
No, that was Mastermind.

Angus Montgomery:
Sorry, that reference just went straight over my head. Sarah Stewart…

Sarah Stewart:
...on innovation. So, 2018 has been a big year for innovation, and not just in this government but in governments all across the world. So, in summer, I’m sure you heard, that the French government announced a £1.5 billion investment in research into artificial intelligence. The Singaporean government, or actually the prime minister said, that innovation was an obsession for them, not just an interest, an obsession. Countries like Norway are doing some really interesting things, actually, the prime minister launched this programme calling it a kind of Tinder…

Angus Montgomery:
Nice.

Sarah Stewart:
So the government is helping clean tech industries reach out to international markets.

Angus Montgomery:
To literally hook up with those markets.

Sarah Stewart:
Exactly. Oh God…

But, what we’re interested in is the UK, sorry, let me bring you back. Let’s land at Heathrow and tell you about what’s happening in this country. So earlier this year we published a survey of all emerging tech activity across government, so we know the extent and where innovative activity with emerging tech is happening. So, we know, for example, like we mentioned earlier, that GOV.UK is using supervised machine learning, as is the UK Hydrographic Office, and that BEIS, DFID and Defra are using big data and sensors to improve agricultural yield and protect crops.

Angus Montgomery:
So, lots of cool stuff happening, but I think one of the things that we talk about a lot that’s really interesting is that all this work going on in isolation is great and really exciting, but for it to have an effect you kind of need to have an overarching strategy, you need to be able to do it in the right way you need to be able to make sure that you’re not just chasing after the latest shiny thing…

Sarah Stewart:
Whizzy things.

Angus Montgomery:
Whizzy things, to make it a theme. Sarah, you interviewed Terence Eden, as you’ve already mentioned, for the podcast that we published a couple of months ago, and Terence had some words about this as well:

[Audio starts]
‘How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at the new fashionable tech, because it’s new and fashionable?’
‘It’s a good question. The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is ‘The future is already here, it’ just not very equally distributed yet.’ That’s not really the case. The future isn’t here. We’ve got glimpses that if we can build this huge dataset, then we will be able to artificial intelligence the blockchain into the cloud and magic will happen. Yes, you’re right, people just go a little starry eyed…’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, Sarah, how do we avoid people being all starry-eyed and just chasing after the latest whizzy new technology?

Sarah Stewart:
We use a strategy, Angus, which is exactly what the minister announced after the publication of the survey. So, it was good that we had a landscape and we had a much better understanding of the emerging tech that was being used across government, but we needed to round it up with a strategy. To ensure that we’re moving forward in a clear and sensible way the strategy was the thing.

So, GDS is leading this, but the minister has been attending quite a few engagement meetings to get the expertise from tech leaders, academics and practitioners in the field about what this strategy needs to address, because we don’t want to get into the situation where, in five years’ time or ten years’ time, we’re playing catch-up. So, I think that’s going to be published in the spring.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, I look forward to it and look forward to seeing what we have to say in that.
One more thing, we talked about this earlier on but the idea of the academy and GDS as a whole, upskilling and helping build capability across the civil service and digital, we’ve been taking that into emerging technologies as well, through the pilot Emerging Technology Development Programme. Sarah, you spoke again to Terence Eden about this, because I think he’s one of the first people who went through the pilot.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. The idea is that there are going to be people who are skilled up and specialists in emerging technologies, so they can go into departments across government to help other teams and spreading the word. The pilot was run earlier this year, and you’re right, Terence Eden was on there, and here’s what he thought of it:

[Audio starts]
‘I think that’s what the Emerging Technology Development Programme is about, is making sure that civil servants can code, making sure that they understand how they would build an AI system, understand what the ethics are, learn about what the reasons for and against using a bit of technology like distributed ledgers are, because otherwise we end up with people just buying stuff which isn’t suitable.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, super important stuff. Just one final, but super important, part of the innovation work that GDS has been doing over the last year is the GovTech Catalyst Challenge.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. This is a £20m fund which is designed to incentivise tech companies to help the public sector with challenges that they may face.

Angus Montgomery:
So, two really cool things about this is it’s dealing with really interesting public sector challenges, like how do you deal with loneliness and isolation in rural areas, or how do you help track a waste chain across its whole process or how do you help to keep firefighters safe when they’re out on emergency calls? But, what it’s also doing is bringing in the interesting emerging technologies, so things like artificial intelligence or location sensing or wearable tech and, kind of, using them on these specific examples, but by doing that it’s proving the value to the wider public sector as well.
So, if you use that emerging technology in one particular incident or in one particular incidence you might then find other applications for it in the public sector. So, it’s kind of like a testing ground for stuff as well, which is really exciting.

I think what is really cool about this is that the GovTech Catalyst Fund has been going now for some time and, as you mentioned, there have been a number of challenges launched. We’re starting to see potential where it could tackle real issues, like I mentioned earlier about keeping firefighters safe.

Sarah Stewart:
The other really cool thing as well is that it’s a London team, so the team is based in London, but the challenges that are coming in are not solely London based challenges, they’ve come from all over the country as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s hear from Wales.

[Audio starts]
‘If I was to wear the tracking device and I was committed to a building it would make me feel safer, because I know that if any of my other communications fail or if I’m needing assistance then they’re going to know where I am.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So that’s Mid and West Wales Fire Service, who have a GovTech Challenge competition out for the moment, for tracking for firefighters when they’re out on emergency calls.

Sarah Stewart:
The other beautiful thing, if I can call it beautiful, if I can call boosting the economy beautiful, is that it gives small, kind of, nimble SMEs a chance to do business with government. So, it’s not just monopolised by massive companies, it’s really helping the burgeoning GovTech sector to grow, and this is one very tangible way in which is happening.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s helping the right people work on the right problems, which is what it’s all about.
That was innovation. So, we’ve done it all.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, we’ve done it.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve done transformation, collaboration and innovation, and that was an overview of 2018 at GDS.
What was your favourite moment of 2018, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
Good question. I think it was April, when the late Jeremy Heywood, came in to talk to the organisation. I was impressed by the amount of stuff that he knew because his portfolio must’ve been enormous. To know in very precise detail exactly what’s happening in every part of government was really inspiring, not only from a digital perspective, but also as a civil servant. You just think, “Wow, that’s colossal intellect deployed just brilliantly.”

Angus Montgomery:
Yes I think I’d agree with you about when Lord Heywood came in. Like you said, he was such an impressive speaker and showed such a massive intellect, but also a real interest and passion about what GDS was doing. Like you say, his brief was so massive that he would’ve had to have a handle on so many different parts of government, for him to come in and be really interested, engaged and talking to individual people and talking to the organisation as a whole was super-impressive. So, I think that was definitely a highlight for me.

I think the other highlight was something we’ve talked about quite a lot, which was Sprint, which was super hard work, I think, for everyone involved, but really amazing and really amazing to see people at GDS and people from across government get the opportunity to talk about the work that they’ve been doing and see the reception that that got. Having a workshop about open standards that left people in tears and things like that were really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
For the right reasons.

Angus Montgomery:
So that was really cool.

Next year, what are you most looking forward to?

Sarah Stewart:
Spring, because in spring the Innovation Strategy will be published.

Angus Montgomery:
Ah, the strategy.

Sarah Stewart:
The strategy… How about you?

Angus Montgomery:
For me, I guess, it’s a bit of a cop out answer, but more of the same. I think what I really value about GDS is that there are lots of organisations that use words like transformation, collaboration and innovation, and other words like that, but use them in quite intangible ways, and just don’t really deliver against them. I think what we’ve proved over the last year is that we are delivering loads of really tangible, amazing things.

There are things that we and other parts of the government have done this year that are changing people’s lives. That, to me, is the reason GDS exists. We talk to the talk but we’re delivering this stuff as well, we’re actually doing stuff, and more tangible things. The Innovation Strategy is a part of that, obviously, and seeing tangible outcomes from that, more people using common components, more services that have been transformed in a way that it’s going to help people go about their lives and make people’s lives better.

I think just the stuff that we’ve done over this last year has been brilliant, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of its next year.

So, that wraps up 2018 and the 2018 year in review podcast.

Sarah Stewart:
What a year it’s been.

Angus Montgomery:
What a year it’s been.

Sarah Stewart:
Wait. We’ve forgotten to mention the most exciting thing that’s going to happen in 2019.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s that?

Sarah Stewart:
The continuation of the GDS podcast series.

Angus Montgomery:
Of course. As I mentioned before, this is the fourth episode of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done, and we’ve got plenty more exciting ones planned. So, if you’ve enjoyed this one and you enjoyed the previous ones that we’ve done, then go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to the GDS podcasts because we’ve got a ton more exciting stuff happening next year.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Oh yes.Thank you very much for listening. Thank you for joining me, Sarah.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh, you’re welcome.

Angus Montgomery:
And goodbye.

Sarah Stewart:
Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #3 - an interview with the GDS Women’s Network

December 3, 2018
00:0000:00

In this episode, we talk to Liz Lutgendorff and Rosa Fox from the GDS Women's Network.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the third edition of the government digital service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery and I’m a senior writer at GDS, and for this episode of the podcast we're going to be talking to Liz Lutgendorff and Rosa Fox from the GDS Women’s Network, so thank you very much both for joining me.

Rosa Fox:
Thank you for having us.

Angus Montgomery:
Before I start, if I could just ask you, because we're going to go on to talk about the Women’s Network and what it does and why it was set up, and why it exists in GDS, and we’re loosely talking about it because 2018 is the centenary of women suffrage in the UK, and in fact I think on the 21st November 1918 women could be elected to parliament for the first time, so I think in February there was universal suffrage, or women suffrage in 2018, in November women could be elected to parliament, so we’re hoping that this will be released at about that date so that’s why we’re here.

But before we go into that, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you ended up at GDS and what you do. Liz, if you could let me know, how long have you been at GDS and what do you do here?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’ve been here almost seven years now, so I am like a veteran of GDS.

Angus Montgomery:
Since the beginning.

Liz Lutgendorff:
Almost the beginning, so I’m pre-GDS but not pre-GOV.UK, I think, so I was brought on in January 2012. Originally I was looking at this site called Business Link, if anyone remembers it, to analyse the user needs to add them to what was then the beta of GOV.UK. I was with the content team for about four or five years, and then I worked with the GOV.UK programme as a whole, trying to make us more efficient and use data better, and then January this year I moved to Verify to do the same thing, so looking at data analysis, how the programme works, things like that.

Angus Montgomery:
Cool, and Rosa, what do you do and how long have you been at GDS?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, so I’ve been at GDS for nearly three years, and I work as a software developer. I was on GOV.UK for two years doing mostly back end development in a language called Ruby and I then joined Verify, maybe about six months ago, so, yes, me and Liz are now on the same programme, and, yes, working in Java on the Verify project, so, yes, it’s good.

Angus Montgomery:
What was your background, what were you doing before you came to GDS and to government?

Rosa Fox:
Worked in quite a small Ruby on Rails agency previously, and then before that various jobs, mostly in small tech companies, and then before that I was studying my degree which was half music half computer science.

Angus Montgomery:
So sort of background in the wider private sector tech industry?

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Liz, how about you?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Broadly the same. I was working for a start-up and before that I was working for a company that did accessible formats. It was a translation company but also did accessible format, so kind of just that, and then before that I was in Canada and I was in university.

Angus Montgomery:
Cool. You’re both obviously involved in the Women’s Network at GDS. Do you have formal roles in it, what do you do for the network?

Rosa Fox:  
I am a co-chair of the Women’s Network. In January we re-launched the network, so me and a colleague called Amanda Diamond, who is now on loan to ACAS, but she was really instrumental in re-launching the network with me. On Amanda’s departure Nicky Zachariou and Laura Flannery have joined me as co-chairs. As a part of that, as a part of the big re-launch, which I can go into more detail later, we created five working groups, and we have people involved in a lot of the different groups, so Liz is involved in events mostly-

Liz Lutgendorff:
And the pay transparency.

Rosa Fox:  
Yes, and pay transparency.  

Angus Montgomery:
Okay, cool, so very active roles both of you.

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Why does the Women’s Network exist and what’s its purpose, what’s it there to do?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’m trying to remember back to when we started it, but I think it was still at Aviation House, were you here when it started or had it already existed?

Rosa Fox:
I read that it started in 2014, so I wasn’t here but you probably were.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think it was generally that GDS had been growing larger. We were becoming more – moving more from being a kind of scrappy start-up to actually having formal things, and how we as employees improve the organisation. I think a lot of us were actually becoming permanent employees rather than contractors as well. I remember we had by the old purple sofas, so like we don’t have meeting rooms as normal, and we just kind of got together and was like, “Do we want to do this thing?” Everyone was like, “Yes, we should do this thing.”

It started as I think as a lot of just email, talking about things that were happening, not really any huge, formal structure that we have now, and then over time it become more formalised. We were like, “What do we want? What kinds of goals do we want to achieve?” And so we did some more events. We weren’t really quite active in changing policy yet, that’s come more with the formal re-launch

Angus Montgomery:
Do you remember, was there a particular spark or a catalyst that led to this happening?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’m not sure. I think there are other people who recognised that there was a gap, that we didn’t have one. I wasn’t really involved, I just remember it happening and being at the group. I think it was just we didn’t have it and we thought there were things that we could improve. We recognised the fact that we had far fewer female developers, a lot of the technical roles were male dominated with only like maybe one or two people who were women in senior levels and things like that. Our SM team was generally quite male heavy I think at that time, it’s gotten better in recent months and years.

Yes, it was mainly a recognition that we didn’t have this and we recognised the imbalance in the workplace at the time. There were several changes quite early on I think, or maybe not early on but under Stephen Foreshew-Cain, our second director, we went to having female representation on every interview panel, which I think the people team have stats that show that that actually increased the amount of, at least people accepting job offers, or giving job offers I think it was, and then as well as making the commitment of not to speak at events that are male dominated, so making sure that women are represented on panel discussions or in the conference in general.

It was quite nice to have that commitment quite early on from our senior management to improve women’s opportunity in these panels as well, so putting women forward to speak at GDS events, rather than having the same people who may have previously spoken anyway and don’t really need the kind of experience or profile raising, so that was quite nice, that was fairly early on in the development of the network I think by engaging with SM team.

Angus Montgomery:
Did you find SM, senior management team, and leadership, did you find that they were quite receptive to this idea of having a women’s network, and was the organisation receptive as well?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes. In general I think GDS is quite acceptant of most networks, if not all networks, so it’s good, but especially under Stephen I think it was – action happened as a result of it which was really nice.

Angus Montgomery:
Rosa, as someone who joined GDS when the Women’s Network had been set up and existed, what do you remember when you first came across it and what you thought of it?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, so I suppose software development, it is very male dominated, and I suppose on a lot of my teams I was often the only woman, so when I heard that there was a Women’s Network I kind of – I felt even though the guys on my team were lovely and fortunately I didn’t experience any harassment or discrimination, but sometimes if you’re struggling or, you know, you kind of want to be around people that you can relate to. I don’t know, it made me feel a bit more comfortable knowing that I had more of a support group there.

When I found out about the Women’s Network, I think it was probably through the inspirational speaker series, so I think that’s how I probably heard that it was in existence and, yes, and then I started going to meetings and things from there.

Angus Montgomery:
Had you ever come across anything similar in other roles, in your jobs before GDS?

Rosa Fox:
Not so much because I worked at quite small companies. Outside of work I co-organise something called Code Bar, which is free weekly coding workshops for people underrepresented in the tech industry. Although in a work capacity I hadn’t I’d done a lot of diversity related community stuff outside of work, so in terms of having a supportive network of people and building that and being involved in that it was quite a big part of my life, but to actually have it in work wasn’t something that I’d had before, as such, but I think that was just because I’d worked at quite small places.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s it like, because I think I probably joined you, yes, about the same time as you and had a similar-ish background, in that I’d worked in smaller organisations in the private sector, and to me one of the really notable things about coming to GDS was the fact that these networks existed but the fact that they were so active, and it was really inescapable that these kinds of networks existed and this diversity existed, and that was really amazing and something that just really stuck with me.

I remember my first few days just seeing things like rainbow flags all over the place and stuff like that. Having come from an environment that I thought was quite inclusive to one that was really, really obviously inclusive was really amazing. Did you find something similar, or how do you feel about-?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, I think it helps a lot to just be very vocal about what is acceptable and what you want and the kind of culture that you want to have. For example, we have lots of posters that we put all over the walls and things just to try and be like, “We’re here, we’re present.” I think the more that you make your values known then the easier it is to call out when something isn’t right. That is still difficult to do even with everything that we have, and that is something that we’re still working on improving, but I think ultimately knowing that we’re creating somewhere where people should feel comfortable to be themselves and feel included is really important, so I think it’s good to shout it from the roof tops and try and make sure everyone is-

Angus Montgomery:
Again, one of the things that struck me is the amount of, like you say shouting through the rooftops, but the amount of energy that you need to have to keep that going as well, like it’s really important to continue to be really, really vocal about this stuff. Liz, is that something that you found, kind of having been involved in the network since the beginning? It’s not that you can't just do this thing and then let it go; you’ve kind of got to keep going with it and got to keep really vocal.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I would say anyone listening in any capacity, I get involved with so many things because I’m generally a person who will just do them, I will get involved and I will be an active person and so this isn’t the only network I’m in, for example, but the problem is that networks live and die by the people who get involved, and having the umbrella is great but you still need the individuals to do the planning, do the organisation.

I think there’s a difference between joining and thing and you’re like, “There’s this thing, and that’s wonderful and I’ll participate and go to the things,” but it takes an extra level of personal courage and political capital to be, “I’m also going to be the annoying person who raises the thing that has upset the group,” and being that front person to say, “This wasn’t appropriate,” or putting on a controversial talk if we want to do that, or something like that.

And again, I think when it ebbs and flows is when people have left and were doing that role and there’s a vacuum to replace it, or you’re just really busy, work in GDS ebbs and flows as well, and so if you feel you have the time and energy and you’re not afraid of doing that, like get involved, we need you, we always need you. Don’t feel like you’re going to step on people’s toes. Just say, “I’d really like to help.” What would you like me to do? This is what I’m interested in.” They will love you for it.

No one will think you’re butting in or being mean or trying to take over, it’s we just need the help. We’re all working every day, we have holidays, we have good days and bad days and so anyone who can pick up the slack is completely 100% absolutely welcome to get involved.

Rosa Fox:
It does take courage. Some of the issues that we deal with are – they can be emotionally draining, but we just do what we can to support each other. You have to think back to the suffragettes, deeds not words. As a community they got together and they fought for change and they got it, so just keep going.

Angus Montgomery:
You mentioned that it’s challenging, and obviously it takes a lot of energy, but you’re seeing change because you are – things are changing because the network exists and that must be hugely rewarding, do you get that feeling as well and is that what keeps you going in a sense?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes, I definitely think from being here seven years ago that GDS in different ways has gotten better and worse. Worse in the sense like it’s not as small as it was so you don’t feel involved in every decision, sometimes you don’t know where things come from, sometimes you don’t know who these people are because they’re on a different floor and you’ve never met them, but in others ways it’s become much better.

I think the hiring practices have gotten a lot more slicker. We definitely have more women involved in the workplace, and in senior positions. We have now the time to do the network things. I think at the very beginning it was just like, “Let’s get stuff over the line, oh my God,” so busy, so stressful, and so it’s mellowed in the sense that we have the time, people aren’t expected to be heroes and just constantly deliver and deliver and deliver.

So in that way I think it’s a much better workplace, especially for people who want to be involved in something but have kids, or have caring commitments, or are reservists, or whatever, that you don’t feel like you’re letting the team down if you can't spend 100% time delivering the thing, you can take that time out to help make the workplace better. I think on aggregate it has become better.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, and I would say it is so rewarding. For example, one of the things that we’ve done is a break into public speaking workshop, and so when people sign up… So originally it was for the Women’s Network, now it’s for anyone underrepresented in tech, and when people register they fill out a form and they talk about what holds you back from public speaking, what are your worries, what are your fears. It’s really sad to see the responses and it seems like, “I’m worried I don’t have anything interesting to say. I’m scared that I will completely freeze when I get on stage.” All the worries that people have about public speaking, but when people turn up, the women are so talented, they’ve got so many amazing stories.

I think what kind of world do we live in where these people have been told that they don’t have anything to say, so to see people go from…And it’s not their ability that’s the problem, it’s the lack of confidence, and to see people go from these fears to then to see them present at the end and go on to speak at conferences and do all these things, and I think having underrepresented people out there speaking, having a voice, is so important and it’s so inspirational to others as well. Things like that I find really, yes, really inspiring.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I was just thinking about GDS I think, and it’s still present, it was present in the beginning and it’s still present now, is that everyone wants to see the best of people and so, again, the getting involved in public speaking, you can go there knowing that they’re going to be supportive and no one’s going to laugh or anything. They’re there because they genuinely have either struggled themselves, they want to help people, and that’s the same ethos across GDS, that everyone wants the best out of everyone, and they want to help them get there.

Coming to work for GDS must be lovely for some people because I know coming from another job that you don’t have that, right, it’s kind of like it’s a terrible workplace, not everyone hates each other but there are cliques and stuff like that, and it’s genuinely amazing to have such support here and I think, I don’t if it’s unique, I don’t know if other teams across civil service experience this, but when people leave the thing that is common to everyone leaving is like, “I don’t know why I’m leaving, this is truly amazing and I’ve never worked with nicer people in my life. I’ve learned so much from everyone.” I think even if we change, in whatever ways we change as an organisation, as long as that stays true I think GDS will always be an amazing place to work.

Angus Montgomery:
In your time in the Women’s Network, what do you think is the most rewarding or valuable thing that the network has done, or what’s the thing that you think, “So pleased that we did that?”

Rosa Fox:
There are literally so many things. I’d say as an overall general thing, and then I can go into a few more examples but, yes I think so when I talk about all the different working groups that we’ve got, so obviously the chairs of the network are just a few people, we’ve only got so much time, so the network basically relies upon the work of so many people coming together and making change. I think that in itself is something, but, yes, we have inspirational speakers that come in.

I suppose the public speaking workshops, so training and mentoring, there’s a training and mentoring group, they had a launch of a mentoring, I want to say ‘service’, but that’s not the word, mentoring scheme here at GDS, so that’s basically pairing women with mentors to help them with questions to do with career progression and advancing their careers. Yes, that’s something exciting that’s happened.

I remember the previous network did something called ‘reverse mentoring’. When I started GDS, I think it was two months after I joined I did that, and I was reverse mentoring Alex Holmes who was the COO at the time. That was really interesting because I think – so at the time when I thought of a COO, I think of this superhuman, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, or someone like that, so to actually be able to regularly talk to the COO of the company you work at is really inspiring because you find out from them how they got to that point. Also, it makes you realise that maybe it’s not completely unattainable, which is really positive. Yes, things like that.

What else have we had? Things like having diverse interview panels is another thing. This is quite an interesting one, so the previous people that were in charge of the Women’s Network managed to get lots of the fixed term appointment contracts to be made permanent, because obviously if you’re going on maternity leave and your contract runs out you don’t have that job security. I think, yes, pushing things forward like that has been really good.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the things related to that, and it’s a thing that obviously we talk a lot about at GDS, but there are lots of statistics about how underrepresented women are in the tech industry, so I think there’s a PWC report that I’ve seen quite a lot that says something like, “Only 15% of people working in STEM,” so science, technology, engineering and maths, “In the UK are female,” and only 5% of people in leadership positions identify as women as well. It’s an obvious question but why, why is that, and is the tech industry particularly bad, and what are the things that make it so?

Rosa Fox:
I think it stems from a young age. Apparently women were the first computer programmers after the war. We were there, well, I say coding, writing the code out by hand and making punch cards and things like that but I think the 1980s was probably when the male domination crept in and it became more lucrative to be a programmer.

It became I suppose the kind of sci-fi hacker image started. I suppose, I don’t know, women must have just got slowly pushed out. I mean, I don’t think the numbers have improved much since the eighties, which is such a shame. I think a lot of it is how we’re conditioned from a young age. Girls, partly I think it’s girls are not really taught to take risks and things in the way that boys are, you know, “Boys will be boys, girls shouldn’t play in the mud,” that kind of thing. With programming, it does take a lot of grit and determination at first. You have to get comfortable with making mistakes because you break things all the time, things aren’t going to work, you have to sit there for hours trying to get… Like you’ve missed out a bracket and then you realise and then your code works. Things like that. I think maybe that’s part of it. Another thing is maybe it’s got this kind of geeky image, maybe it’s not considered cool to programme computers, and if you’re a girl and you’re at school maybe you’re more interested in trying to fit in with your friends. Maybe it does stem from that age.

I think also girls are just told that they can't do it. I’ve heard of – I knew someone who was studying computing A level quite a long time ago now at school, and they basically said, well, her tutor just constantly put her down. They had an anonymous test score announcement and someone had scored really highly, and they were like, “Put up your hand, who do you think this was?” It was her, so she was constantly put down but then she would get good grades. I think, yes, if you’re told that you’re not going to be good at something and then the opportunities aren’t there then… Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, and I don’t think this is true just of the tech industry but I know for a fact this is true of industries beyond that, but the level of representation of women the higher up you go, the more senior you get, becomes less and less, and that figure about only 5% of people in leadership roles identify as women. Why is that an issue? On top of this structural discrimination, I suppose, against women coming into the tech industry you’ve then got this career progression issue. Why does that happen?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes. It’s not an individual company thing, it’s society. In organisations a lot of the tech stuff is going to be small companies, probably not with great HR policies, probably not with leave or flexible working is not a thing that exists, and so if you’re a carer, mother, if you have any of these responsibilities which disproportionately fall towards women that’s not going to be really attractive, and that’s also where you can also get lots of experience and actually go from being a small start-up to scaling up quite quickly and being in those senior roles, so if you don’t want to do that then where do you go?

Some place within GDS you have those structures and places that allow you to rise but GDS is civil service, not a lot of people know that there are tech opportunities in the civil service, still, even though there in GDS, there are loads of digital teams within many government departments who will offer you that support, and so until that changes across a lot of the tech sector I don’t know if it will improve.

The same with being in a senior role, if you’re not seen as constantly going for that then you’re not going to rise either, and putting yourself out there. If you want to go on leave to have a child or something then that’s going to hold you back. There is enough research that says that’s a big problem.

I think as well, you have to be quite vocal, you need to have, maybe not even vocal but just have that aim and relentlessly pursue it. I don’t think a lot of people are raised like that, like Rosa said. I was not raised like that. My mum was born in the Netherlands and she did a mathematics degree in the 1960s, or something, and she only could become a teacher, that was her only option at that time and so when I was raised my mum was like, “You can do whatever you want.” I changed my mind every five minutes. She was like, “Doesn’t matter, just work for it.” Typical kind of very Dutch approach to things. “Work for it and you do it.”

So I grew up with a very different perception of I can literally do everything. Which has made me probably more mouthy than I should be, but at the same time when I’m in the workforce I know that I am on average probably a lot more argumentative than most of my female colleagues, but on par with my male colleagues because I don’t really see that difference, because that’s how I was raised. Unless you’re getting that support probably from a young age you’re not going to be like that.

Even growing up through high school and university I was always like, “I’m going to do public speaking. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” My parents were all supportive; they never said I couldn’t do anything. You need a lot of support from a lot of different angles to be able to get to that position and to fight for that position. Probably disproportionate to the people who are male and getting those positions because it’s kind of expected.

Rosa Fox:
I was going to say, yes, that’s so true. Girls have for years outperformed boys in every subject in school. It’s not down to the ability of women, women are just as intelligent. I want to say if not more, but… No, it’s about equality. We’re just as intelligent as each other and it’s just awful that women are treated as second class citizens when it’s just the structures have just been so skewed for so long and it just needs to change.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve talked a lot obviously about the Women’s Network and about, I suppose, as a consequence of that what women are doing to help each other in the workplace, and you as women are doing to help other women, but what can men do to help? Well, as a starter, the Women’s Network is open to everyone, you don’t have to identify as a woman to be a member, that’s correct isn’t it?

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Presumably still the majority of members are women. Do you have a lot of members who don’t identify as women?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, I’d say the majority are women. It’s International Men’s Day in a couple of weeks so we’re having a male allies event, and we’re having someone, an Oxford professor called Taha Yasseri and he’s going to be doing a talk about data science in the everyday sexism project. Then we’re going to have two GDS workers, so Kieran Housden and Matt Gregory and they are going to be talking about shared parental leave. Then we’re going to be talking about what it is to be a good male ally, kind of like a group discussion. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more people of any gender to join the network as a result of that as well. Hopefully that will be improving, but at the moment, yes, it is mostly women.

I’d say to be a good ally, firstly I think it’s recognising your biases. I think calling out bad behaviour and setting a good example. Also I think if a woman tells you that they think something is sexist or they think that something is harassment then it probably is. I find it stressful when people try and undermine someone’s opinion on something like that. I think if someone tells you this is sexist it probably is, stop doing it kind of thing.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think on a really individual level, especially in the workplace somewhere like GDS or the civil service, or anywhere where you have a performance review at the end of the year or mid year, whatever, is to always… If a woman asks you for feedback try to give it to them. Like if you can only give one piece of feedback and one’s a guy and one’s a woman, try to give the feedback to the woman because it’s going to be harder for them to get good quality reviews.

The other things is always carefully think about what you’re saying in these things, because you get a lot of flaky, qualitative behaviour sort of thing. So like women will be more strident or they will be more argumentative, but men never get those descriptions in reviews and things like that, and so if you’re on the receiving end of that, like if you’re a manager and you are getting that feedback from someone, not even just a woman but anyone who is an underrepresented minority, to really drill down into it, like what exactly was the thing.

You get a lot of second hand, “I didn’t really like the way they constructed that email.” It’s a perfectly innocuous email, they’ve just kind of that unconscious bias has crept in. So every time there is some sort of unqualified or vague piece of feedback that is especially about behaviour, drill down into it, examine it, see if there is some bias at play.

Women and underrepresented groups always get hit with that stuff, whereas a lot of men don’t. It can really hold people back. These sorts of things really affect women quite strongly because it’s like, “I thought I was being a good team member, communicating, getting all my stakeholders involved,” all these sorts of things. It just throws people for a loop.

This is more from all my union experience but it’s so tough to get good, practical, delivery focused reviews. It’s like, “Yes, they delivered this thing, it was really well done,” all that sort of stuff, so give good, evidenced feedback for people. That will help them career wise more so than probably anything else that you could do for them. Or if they need help with something be very thorough, help them through the problem, build their confidence while you’re solving that problem, but just be there, be supportive, be un-judgemental and just help them in small ways to progress.

Angus Montgomery:
Just as a final question, the Women’s Network has been around for several years now and obviously as we’ve spoken about has done a lot of things, how would GDS be different if the Women’s Network didn’t exist?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think we’d have less women in the workplace.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, definitely, less women. I think the culture would probably be not very nice really.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think it would be all right but it wouldn’t be as thoughtful as it is. I think over the years it’s become far more thoughtful. Yes, definitely less women! (Laughter)

Rosa Fox:
Yes, maybe it would be more hostile. Yes, probably just wouldn’t be such a nice place to be day to day.

Angus Montgomery:
So real tangible, not only a nicer place but more women in the workplace literally because of the network?

Rosa Fox:
Definitely. I think the work we’ve produced as working for the government, our products have to work for everyone, so if we’ve got more of a range of inputs and we have better products that we produce, so…

Liz Lutgendorff:
I have no idea why the people who took shared parental leave took it because they knew of it, but I know the civil service in general has been the largest uptake of people using shared parental leave. So for those who don’t know it means that if you meet certain qualifications you can basically split the time off between your partners. So you might take four months, the mother might take four months, the mother or the other father might take four months, whatever, however you break it down.

I think because it’s so un-judgemental in terms of where we work and that you won't be disappointing your team if you leave for four months to spend that quality time with your child that more men will take it here. I know so many men who have taken shared parental leave with GDS and it’s just great, you get to have that time. I’m not a parent, I don’t know what it’s like but I imagine it must be nice not to have two weeks and have to go back and have a newborn in your house. To be able to take that time and become a parent must be really nice.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, the countries where there is a greater amount of maternity and paternity leave, they have better gender equality so, yes, I think it’s so important, and if more importance, and understanding the importance of care giving, I think we’re so taught career, career, career, but actually if we didn’t have care giving then people can't have careers, so I think if more appreciation was given towards that as well, which I think it is here at GDS more so than a lot of other places, then I think that’s good. If people are happy outside of work they’re going to do better work when they’re at work. Hopefully.

Angus Montgomery:
Just to finish off, for anyone who’s listening to this, how can they get involved with and join the Women’s Network?

Rosa Fox:
Please join. Yes, we have a Google group, so usually a lot of the communications are done through that so it’s probably best to join that. Otherwise, just message me or Nicky or Laura and, yes, there are plenty of different groups that you could be involved in. It’s like if anyone’s got an idea that they want to make happen then we’re open to try and make it happen.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, well I hope lots of people do. Yes, Liz and Rosa, thank you very much for joining me.

Rosa Fox:
Thank you.

Liz Lutgendorff:
Thanks.

Angus Montgomery:
Thank you very much for joining us for that episode of the GDS podcast, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you want to listen to any more podcasts please go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to it, we’ve got lots more coming up. The next episode which we will be releasing in December will be a review of the year at the Government Digital Service, so please subscribe and listen to that one, and I hope you enjoy what we’ve done and what we’ll do in the future. Thank you very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #2 An interview with Terence Eden

November 7, 2018
00:0000:00

In this episode, we talk to Terence Eden, Open Standards Lead at the Government Digital Service. We discuss his job, a digitally-equipped civil service and emerging technology in government.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Sarah Stewart:

Hello. Welcome to the second GDS podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart, Senior Writer at the Government Digital Service. Today I’ll be joined in conversational paradise with Terence Eden. Terence is known variously as a tech enthusiast, as a digital troublemaker, as the man who hacked his own vacuum cleaner to play the ‘Star Wars’ theme tune, but in a professional capacity he is the Open Standards Lead at the Government Digital Service. Terence, welcome.

Terence Eden: 

Thank you very much for having me.

Sarah Stewart: 

So how do you explain what you do?

Terence Eden: 

What I tend to say, in a very reduced vocabulary, is, “We have computers. Government has computers, and those computers need to talk to each other, but sometimes those computers don’t speak the same language.” It’s my job to say, “Hey, can we agree on a common language here?” Then, when we can, those computers speak to each other.

It’s, kind of, as simple as that. If we publish a document and it’s in a format that you don’t understand, that’s a barrier to entry for you. You can’t get access to the data or the information you need. If we publish it in such a way that it’s only available on one manufacturer’s type of smartphone, that’s a barrier. We can’t do that, so it’s my job to say, “No, let’s make it available to everyone, in a common language.”

I’ve got a big sticker on my laptop which says, ‘Make things open. It makes things better.’ That applies to a whole variety of things, and there are people here working on open data, and open source, and open government, but my part of the mission is to say that, when government produces documents or data, everyone should be able to read them.

It’s unacceptable that we say, “Okay, if you want to interact with government, you need to pay this company this money, for this software, which only works on that platform.” That’s completely antithetical to everything we’re trying to do, so my mission – our team’s mission – is to go around government, saying, “There’s a better way of doing things, there’s a more open way of doing things, and we can help you with that.” 

Sarah Stewart:

That sounds completely straightforward.

Terence Eden:

You’d think, wouldn’t you? Most of the time it is. When you tell people and you say, “If you publish it like this, then only people with that computer can read it,” it’s like a light goes off.

Sarah Stewart: 

Do you go out to departments proactively, or do they come to you?

Terence Eden:

It’s both. I spent last week talking to the DWP and the Government Statistical Service, and I’m speaking, I think, this week to a couple of different departments and ministries. We go out, we chat to them, but quite often they come to us and say, “Hey, users have complained about this,” or, “Hang on. We think we need to do something better. What should we do?” and we offer just a wide range of advice.

Sarah Stewart:

Government is huge and technology changes all the time so how do you make sure you are progressing in the right direction, that you’re achieving what needs to be achieved, and that your work is ‘done’, I mean is it even possible to say your work is ‘done’?

Terence Eden:

Wow… It’s a slight Sisyphean task, I think, because there’s always going to be a new department coming online which doesn’t get it, or someone who’s come in, and a bit of work which only gets published every five years, and the process is never updated. It’s a rolling task.

We monitor everything the government publishes. My team, when we see a department which only publishes something in a proprietary format, we drop them an email and say, “Hey, look, here are the rules. This is what you need to do. Can you fix it?” Most of the time they do, and we’ve seen… We’ve published some statistics. We’re seeing a steady rise in the number of open-format documents which are being published.

That’s great, so we’re on our way with the mission. You can’t expect everyone to keep on top of every change in technology and the best practice all the time, so there is always going to be a need for bits of GDS to go out and say, “You know what? This is best practice. This is the right way to do it, and we can help you get there and make things more open.”

So… we need to do, I think, in GDS and across government, a better job of understanding what our users want – what they need, I should say – and also explaining that user need back to the rest of government.

Sarah Stewart:

But what’s your focus at the moment?

Terence Eden:

We have a problem with PDFs. I don’t think that’s any surprise. I’ve published the stats, but there are some critical government forms which are being downloaded millions of times per year, which could be better served being online forms. When someone has to download, print out a form, fill it in by hand and then post it back, for someone else to open it up, scan it, or type it in, we-

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s the worst.

Terence Eden:

It’s the worst. It’s rubbish. It’s a rubbish user experience. It’s expensive and it’s not very efficient. It means you’re waiting weeks to get an answer, whereas if you can just go on your phone and type in your name, address, and all the other bits that they want, and hit ‘go’ and then get either an instant or a rapid decision, that just transforms the relationship between the citizen and the state, as we say.

So, a large part of the next six months is going to be finding those… It’s not low-hanging fruit, but it’s just those big, horrible things which just no-one has got round to tackling yet. Some of them, there are good reasons and there are whole business processes behind, but we need to be pushing and saying, “Look, in 2018 this isn’t good enough. This isn’t the way that we can behave anymore.”

A lot of what I do is going round to departments, and doing presentations, and talking to people individually and in groups. I see that continuing. We also work a lot with SDOs: standard development organisations. I’m on a committee for the British Standards Institute, and I work with World Wide Web Consortium, and so we’re making sure that the government’s view is represented.

We don’t ever want to produce a standard which is a government standard, and it’s the government’s own standard. It’s the only one, and we’re the only people who use it, because no-one wants to deal with that. We want to have… We want to be using internationally accepted standards. If you’re an SME, if you’re a small-medium business and you want to pitch for some work for government, you don’t need to go and buy a huge, expensive standard, or you don’t need to do a piece of work just for us. Your work can be applicable everywhere.

That said, it’s important for us to be on these standards development organisations so we can say, “Actually, our user needs are going to be slightly different from a FTSE 100 company, or from a charity, or from someone else.” We can just shape those standards so that they’re slightly more applicable for us.

Sarah Stewart:

Someone listening might ask: why can’t government use, say, something like Google Forms instead of a PDF? Why can’t government just do this?

Terence Eden:

In some ways, they can. With that particular example, we need to understand people’s concerns about privacy. If we were using a third-party form supplier, for example, do you want, if you’re filling in a form which says how many kids you’ve got, how many have died, and your health issues and all that, do you want that going to a third party to be processed? Some people will be comfortable with it. Some people will, rightly, be uncomfortable with it. We need to make sure that any solution that we pick actually addresses users’ very real concerns.

There are several pieces of work around government trying to get forms right. Part of the problem is that each department has their own set of users, with their own set of user needs. If you are a, I don’t know… If you’re a farmer applying for a farm payment, you have very different needs to if you are a single mother applying for child benefit, to if you are a professional accountant trying to submit something to HMRC.

So, just saying, “We’re going to have one standardised way of sending data to the government” might actually not work. We have to realise that users all have different needs. It’s tricky, and there are ways that we are helping with it, but I think that’s going to be a piece of work which is going to continue rumbling on, just because some of these processes are very old-fashioned, and they still rely on things being faxed across and being handwritten.

Sarah Stewart:

Faxed? That can’t be right. Actually, no, I can believe it

Terence Eden:

Lots of stuff just goes through via fax because, if you’ve got a computer system built in one department, and a computer system built by someone else in another department, and they don’t speak the same language, actually the easiest way to do something is to send a photo of that document across. That’s easiest and quickest. Fax is relatively quick, but it comes with all of this baggage and it doesn’t always work right. We see that fax machines are vulnerable to computer viruses and stuff like this.

Sarah Stewart:

And the noise.

Terence Eden:  

And the noise, but sometimes we have these little stopgaps, which are good enough for the time, but they never get replaced. Part of the work that we’ve done with the Open Standards Board is to make sure that all emergency services use a standard called ‘MAIT’ – Multi Agency Incident Transfer – which basically means you don’t need a police department to fax across details to an ambulance or to a coastguard. Their computers, even if they’re made by different people and run different operating systems and programs, they all speak to a common standard.

So trying to find where those little bugs in the process are is part of our job. If people want to help out, if they know where problems are, if they come across to GitHub, we’re on ‘github.com/alphagov/open-standards’. They can raise an issue there and say, “Hey, there really ought to be an open standard for,” dot, dot, dot, or, “Look, this process really doesn’t make sense. There’s this open standard which would save us a lot of time and money. Can we adopt it?”

It’s as simple as raising a GitHub issue with us. We do most of the hard work to find out whether it’s suitable, and we take it through a slightly convoluted process, but it keeps us legally in the clear. Yes, then we can, hopefully, mandate that across government and start the work on getting people to adopt it.

Some of the stuff we do is small. Saying that text should be encoded using Unicode UTF-8, that just basically means that, when someone sends you a document with an apostrophe in it, it doesn’t turn into one of those weird… We call it ‘Mojibake’, where there are just weird symbols in place of-

Sarah Stewart:

The squares.

Terence Eden:

Yes, the weird squares. That is a really boring, low-level standard, but it just makes everything easy, all the way up to something like MAIT or International Aid Transparency Initiative, which allows you to see where all the foreign aid that we spend, and all the grants that we make, goes. That’s hugely important for understanding, if you’re a taxpayer, where your money is going, but, if you’re in the charity sector or the aid sector, understanding how government is using funds to improve lives.

We don’t want information to be locked away in filing cupboards. We don’t want it so that, if you request some information, you have to send an FOI and then you get a scan of a fax posted off to you. That’s rubbish. We want this information front and centre so that, if people want to use it, it’s there, and that it works absolutely everywhere.

It doesn’t matter which phone you’ve got, which computer you’ve got, you should be able to access all of the information that you’re entitled to, with no intermediaries, no having to pay for extra software. It should just be there. If we make things open, then we make things better.

Sarah Stewart:

Another area of focus for you is emerging technology - innovation is a hot topic in government at the moment with the publication of the tech innovation in government survey, the GovTech catalyst fund, and the development of an innovation strategy. How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at new fashionable tech because it’s new and fashionable?

Terence Eden:

The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed yet.” That’s not really the case. The future isn’t here. We’ve got glimpses that, if we can build this huge dataset, then we will be able to artificial intelligence the blockchain into the cloud and magic will happen. You’re right: people just go a little starry-eyed over this.

What we need in government is people who understand technology at a deep and fundamental level, not people who see what a slick sales team is selling, not people who read a report in a newspaper and go, “We could do that.” You need a fundamental understanding.

Sarah Stewart:

Do you really think it’s possible that every Civil Servant can understand the fundamentals of emerging technology and digital practice?

Terence Eden: 

Yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Because it can seem quite frightening.

Terence Eden: 

Yes, absolutely. We wouldn’t accept a civil servant who couldn’t read or write. We can be as inclusive as we like, but we need to set minimum standards for being able to engage with the work that we do. Similarly, we wouldn’t accept a civil servant who couldn’t type or use a computer in a basic way.

I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about digital natives. What a digital native is: someone whose parents were rich enough to buy them a computer when they were a kid. That’s great, but not everyone is that lucky, but what we can do is say, “We’re not going to just train you in how to fill in a spreadsheet. We’re going to teach you to think about how you would build a formula in a spreadsheet, how to build an algorithm,” and you can start building up on that.

We have to be committed to lifelong learning in the civil service. It’s not good enough to say, “Okay, this is your job. You’re going to do it for the next 25 to 40 years, and there will be no change in it whatsoever.” That’s unrealistic. I think as part of that – and it’s not going to happen overnight – we need to make sure that when someone comes in and says, “We’re going to use an algorithm,” that everyone in the room not only understands that but is able to critique it, and potentially be able to write it, as well.

I think that’s what the ‘Emerging Technology Development Programme’ is about, is making sure that civil servants can code, making sure that they understand how they would build an AI system, understand what the ethics are, learn about what the reasons for and against using a bit of technology like distributed ledgers are, because otherwise we end up with people just buying stuff which isn’t suitable.

We have a slight problem in that we don’t want to tie ourselves to tech which is going to go out of date quickly. It would have been… You can imagine a GDS in the past saying, “Let’s put all of government onto Teletext.” That would be great, but that has a limited shelf life.

We’ve got a statement which says that government shouldn’t build apps, because they’re really expensive to use, and they don’t work for everyone. Okay, maybe there are some limited circumstances where we can use them, but by and large we should be providing on neutral technology platforms, like the web. We need to understand exactly what the limitations are when we say, “Bitcoin, blockchain, the cloud, AI,” anything like that.

So, there are new technologies, and we do adopt them. We can be slow to adopt them, and part of that is: are we chasing fashion, or are we chasing utility? It’s very easy to confuse the two. We wouldn’t, I think, go for transmitting government documents by Snapchat, for example. How cool would that be?

Sarah Stewart:

The filters, yes.

Terence Eden:

Brilliant, but what’s the user need for it? Is it just we want to do something that looks cool? That’s not a user need.

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. The amount of times I hear people talking about headsets, as though everybody in the country is going to have a VR headset.

Terence Eden:

Yes, we’re all going to be jacked into the cyber matrix, (Laughter) watching VR stuff. Yes, and maybe VR will take off; maybe we will… In a year’s time, I’ll be the head of VR for GDS. How cool a job title would that be?

Sarah Stewart:

Well, remember me, or look for me in the matrix.

Terence Eden:

Yes, but is there a user need for it? For some parts of government, you might say, if you’re doing planning decisions, for example, “Would it be good to strap on a VR headset and take a look around this 3D representation of the town after the remodelling or after the bypass has been built?” whatever it is. Okay, yes, you could make an argument for that. Do people want to interact with government in something like ‘Second Life’, or ‘Minecraft’, or ‘Fortnite’, (Laughter) or any of these things which are just coming out? Maybe.

Sarah Stewart: 

I’d love to see the customisable characters.

Terence Eden:

Yes, brilliant. We’ve got to be ever so slightly careful that this cool, shiny tech is going to last, because, if we make an investment in it, that’s other people’s money that we’re spending. When I was in the private sector, it’s shareholders’ money that you’re spending. It’s still someone else’s money that you’re spending, and you have to have a really good business case.

It’s alright for us to experiment. Some people in Department for Transport are brilliant at this. Take an idea, run it for a few weeks, and don’t spend more than a few thousand pounds on it, and a few people’s time. Can it work? Does it work? If it doesn’t work, brilliant, we’ve saved money by saying, “Look, doing it this way is probably not going to work for us.” What we don’t want to do is go full in and say, “We’re going to make 3D ‘Angry Birds’ avatars of all civil servants, and then you can play them on your Oculus Rift, or something like that. It’s nonsense.

Sarah Stewart:

Is sandpit testing something that happens across government, it happens loads in the financial industry, but in government does that exist?

Terence Eden:

In part it does. One of the big problems that I see is people are afraid of failure. They shouldn’t be. If we were to say, “We are…” It’s very easy to run a procurement exercise and say, “We’re going to choose the best,” but sometimes what’s the necessary thing to do is, “We are going to ask three or four people to build something, to build a prototype in a few weeks, and we expect two of them to fail.” When you say that and you say, “Hang on, we’re going to spend money and we know that it’s going to fail?” Yes, but we don’t know which one is going to fail. We need to try four or five different approaches. Rather than wait until we’ve spent £1m and there’s a public enquiry on it, let’s get the failure out of the way as soon as possible.

That’s really scary for people of all levels in the civil service, but it’s absolutely necessary. We need to experiment. We need to take risks – small, self-contained risks where, if it fails, okay, so we’ve spent a bit of money, but not an extortionate amount. We’ve spent a bit of time, but only a few weeks, and what we’ve come up with is: “You know what? Doing it that way, it just won’t work. We’ve experimented, we’ve failed, but that’s going to save us more money in the long term.” It’s a mind-set change, and it’s psychologically difficult to turn to your manager and say, “I want to fail at something, please,” but it’s absolutely necessary.

Sarah Stewart:

So somewhat related to that is learning and development. I know that you were involved in the pilot ‘Emerging Technology Development Programme’, which was run through the GDS Academy, could you tell more a bit more about that?

Terence Eden:

So, I’ve already gone on a course to learn ‘R’, which is statistical language. My statistics skills weren’t great, if I’m honest, so being able to learn how to use a really powerful tool like that, and start doing some machine learning on the data that we’re getting in, has been incredibly useful for my job, but I’m also going around talking to other civil servants about things like facial recognition and digital ethics.

It’s really easy for us to see, “Wow, we can do something like face recognition. How cool would that be for our department?” but we also need to think about, “What are the problems? What are the dangers? What are the moral, legal, and ethical considerations that we have to do?”

We know, for example, that, with a cheap webcam and some open-source code, you can do crude gender recognition, so you can say that “This face looks 90% male,” or, “80% female.” That might be useful in some circumstances, but it’s also particularly scary, and difficult, and troubling if you get it wrong, or if someone doesn’t want their born gender revealed, or anything like that.

Where we see bright, shiny, new technology, “We could do something really cool with this,” we also need to temper it and say, “Well, what are the downsides? What are the moral limits to what we can do with this tech?”

Sarah Stewart:

You mention moral limits, and I would like to talk to you a little more about government and ethics, especially as it relates to emerging technology - what is our responsibility?

Terence Eden:

I’m not sure – I’m not a politician, obviously – I’m not sure whether it’s our place to say for the private sector, or for individuals, or for open-source projects what to do, but we absolutely have a duty to talk to civil servants about what they are responsible for.

We have a civil service code, and it says that all of us have to act impartially, and a whole bunch of other things, but it doesn’t… It talks about acting in an ethical fashion, but it doesn’t necessarily address the code that we create. If you’re working in a big department, and you’ve got a big project and we’re going to create some cool machine-learning thing to look at data, then you should be doing an ethical review on that. The Department for – what are they called, ‘Data and Ethics’?

Sarah Stewart:

Oh we have the Centre for Data Ethics.

Terence Eden:

Centre for Data Ethics, yes. If you’ve got a big project that you’re working on, and you’re doing some big data, and you’re trying to learn something from there, then talking to the Centre for Data Ethics is a good thing. You should absolutely be doing it, but, if you’ve just got your laptop one lunchtime, and you’ve downloaded some open-source code from GitHub, and you’re running a machine-learning algorithm on a huge dataset, you can do that by yourself, with no oversight. Should you? What are the ethical considerations that you, as an individual, have to consider?

Sarah Stewart:

Okay, cast your mind back to July. You were at the National Cyber Security Centre. I was there, too. I saw you with a robot. What was all that about?

Terence Eden:

The robots are coming for us. There’s no doubt about that, (Laughter) but what we have to understand is, when we say, “The robots are coming for our jobs,” what jobs do we mean? What are the limits of robotics? What can they do? What can’t they do? We built a really simple Lego robot which solves a Rubik’s Cube. You can go online. The instructions are there. The source code is there. It took my wife and I an afternoon to build it, and this solves a Rubik’s Cube faster than nearly everyone in the building. There’s one person in this building who can beat it, so his job is safe. (Laughter)

Okay, so government doesn’t sort Rubik’s Cubes, generally. That’s not our job, but we do lots of repetitive work with data which is just rote work. Can we train a robot to do that? How do we deal with edge cases? What are the limits when we start doing robotic process automation? That’s what people need to start thinking about now, is what value do they bring to a job which couldn’t be encoded in an algorithm? I think that’s a challenge for all of us.

Sarah Stewart:

Just to confirm, the robots are or aren’t coming for our jobs, specifically writers?

Terence Eden:

Yes. Do you have a spell check on your PC?

Sarah Stewart:

I do.

Terence Eden:

There we go. There is a piece of AI which is doing your job. We don’t think of that as AI, but there’s some really sophisticated technology going in to say, ‘Not only have you misspelt that word, because it doesn’t match the dictionary, but, looking at the context, you probably mean this word.’

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. That’s already happened. Do you remember the Microsoft paperclip? It looks like you’re writing a letter.

Terence Eden:

Yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Actually, I was having a conversation with someone a couple of months ago about speechwriting and how, if you have all of the elements of speechwriting and a computer program, so kind of the rule of three, repetition, a story that includes a beginning, a middle and an end, you actually don’t really need a human to do that.

Terence Eden:  

Absolutely.

Sarah Stewart:

Although I probably shouldn’t say that, because I need my job.

Terence Eden:

I think what we’ll see more is robotic enhancement, if you like, so, as you say, writing a speech, maybe having Clippy coming in and saying, ‘You’re writing a speech. Do you need help with that?” isn’t-

Sarah Stewart:

Clippy, yes.

Terence Eden:

Maybe that’s not what you want, but having something which will gently guide you down the right path, making sure that your spelling and grammar is correct, that the structure is correct, that will all be great. Similarly, when you receive a document and your email program has already scanned it and gone, ‘Well, that’s the address, and this is the person who sent it,’ and things like that, you’re just being augmented a bit by a robot, by a bit of artificial intelligence.

That’s slowly creeping in. I think lots of email programs now offer buttons at the bottom where you can just read the email and it says, ‘You can either reply, “Yes, that’s great,” or, “No, I need more time to think about it.”’ Realistically, that’s what you want to say, quite a lot of the time.

So… Robots are coming for us all now.

Sarah Stewart:

As long as they don’t come for us in… I’ve seen, like, five films in my entire life, and there’s… Is it ‘I, Robot’, with Will Smith? At first the robots are friendly, and then in the second half I think the robots try to kill… This is like when I try to explain ‘Star Wars’ to you, and you actually know...

Terence Eden:

We need a podcast of you explaining ‘Star Wars’, because it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s really complex. Let’s talk about the past - you used to sell ringtones - what made you want to work here?

Terence Eden:

Working in the private sector is great, and working in the public sector is also great. I think people get really hung up about there being a difference, and there isn’t. I’ve worked for some of the biggest companies in the UK, and they have all the same problems that a large government department has. I’ve worked for tiny start-ups, and they can be just as agile as GDS is. There are positives and negatives.

I’d spent a long time doing private sector stuff, and it was great fun, but I saw the work that GDS was doing and thought, “I want to be part of that. I want to be pushing the conversation forward. I want to make sure that the government, the civil service in the country where I live, is doing the right thing.”

It’s really easy being on the outside, snarking, and I think we’ve all done it. (Laughter) It’s like, even if you’re just snarking about the train company or whoever it is, it’s really easy just to go, “They’re all useless,” nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, but it’s harder to come in and say, “Right, I’m going to try and push from the inside.” I don’t think I’m going to succeed at everything that I want, and I’m not coming in with the attitude that I’m going to revolutionise government. I think it would be dangerous if any one civil servant could do that. (Laughter)

Sarah Stewart:

I did try.

Terence Eden:

Did you? But I’ve come in with the attitude that there is a task here that I believe in that I think is important for this country and internationally. If we can lead the way, then we can help influence other people in other countries to do the right thing. That’s fantastic.

I’ve met with government representatives from around Europe, from around the world, and they’ve been consistently impressed with what GDS is doing. Some of them are going, “You’ve got some open-source code. We’ll take that, thanks. Wow, these open standards principles that you’ve got, that makes complete sense for us. Yes, we’ll take it. We’ll shuffle it around to meet our local needs, and go off and do it.” That’s brilliant.

This job wasn’t my career goal. It just so happened that all the work that I’d been doing with standards, and with open source and stuff like that, suddenly this job seemed to fit perfectly. I’ve not had a career plan. I’ve just, sort of, jumped from thing to thing that I found interesting and has coincided with what I’ve been doing anyway, so, yes, it’s mostly luck.

Don’t get me wrong, ringtones are fun – but this is actually having a positive impact on people around the world. That’s great. I love it.

I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done. I’m proud of the departments who have invited us in, been sceptical and gone, “No, alright, yes, we’re going to make some changes to that,” and I’m proud of the fact that, when we go around to departments, they quite often…

I had a lovely chat with a department who said, “We’ve done this, and we’ve done that, and we’ve opened this, and we’ve opened that. How are we doing?” (Laughter) When I said, “My goodness, you are just streets ahead of everyone else,” they just beamed with pride. That was absolutely lovely.

Sarah Stewart:

For the uninitiated, can you explain what open standards are and what open source is?

Terence Eden:

They’re two very different things. Open standards means that, when you’ve got two computers that want to communicate, the language that they use is standardised. Everyone can understand it. We actually have a 48-point definition of open standards, which I’m not going to go onto here, but basically it’s the organisation which creates it. They create it in an open fashion. That means you can see the process by which it happens and that you can go in and make some changes.

They publish it for free – we don’t want government departments to be spending thousands of pounds on standards again and again – and that they have wide international adoption. That’s what open standards are. It just means that our computers can work with computers around the world for free.

Sarah Stewart:

Tell me about open source.

Terence Eden:  

People have the right to see how decisions are being made. Open source is about… In one sense, it’s about publishing the code that we use to run bits of the country. You can see how the GOV.UK website is built. All the code is there, but when we start saying, “Okay, this is how a decision is made, this is how systems integrate with each other,” we should be publishing that. There are several good reasons for doing this. Firstly is it increases trust. If you can see, if you’re a user and you can see how this code works, hopefully you will trust it more.

Sarah Stewart:

So how are we doing in the world stage on open standards?

Terence Eden:  

Good. Could do better, but I always think we can do better. We’re involved with some EU committees around the world, and we are one of the few governments which are on the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium’s advisory committee. Yes, we are going out, we are leading the way in certain areas, but what we’re seeing – and I think this is fascinating – is some countries leapfrogging us.

When I worked for the mobile phone industry, one of the problems with the UK was we had this huge investment in 2G networks, and then another huge investment in 3G networks. You would find countries in Africa which never had, even, landlines before, going, “We’ll just build a 3G network.” They don’t have any of that legacy investment, so they were able to leapfrog us in terms of speed, and connectivity, and price. GDS has been going for, is it, like, six years now?

Sarah Stewart:

Seven. I think we’re approaching our seventh.

Terence Eden:

Six, seven years, yes, so, naturally, we’ve got a lot of legacy stuff that we’ve built up. That means some processes which are a bit slow, and that’s fine, but then you see other countries who’ve skipped to the end. They said, “Okay, so we’ve seen all the mistakes GDS have made. We’ve seen what they’ve come out with at the end. We’ll just take that end piece and run with it.” Brilliant, that’s great. I think we have paved the way for lots of people, but there’s always more we can do.

Sarah Stewart:

So internationally, who do you think is doing good work - which governments are piquing your interest?

Terence Eden: 

I’ve got to give a shout out to New Zealand. I think they’re doing some amazing things, making their government more open, more transparent, getting on board the open source and the open standards train. That’s partly – that’s entirely – a testament to the people who work in New Zealand’s public service. They absolutely get it, and we’re seeing them spread out around. I know that some of them have gone off to Australia, which is great.

We’ve got some GDS alumna off in Canada, and now they are doing brilliant stuff. One of the lovely things about Canada is lots of their digital strategy is on GitHub, so you can just go along and say, “Hang on, you could do something better there,” or even as simple as, “There’s a spelling mistake there,” and fix it. I think that’s wonderful for openness.

Sarah Stewart:

You’re a bug hunter yourself, aren’t you?

Terence Eden:

I am, yes.

Sarah Stewart:

You’re in Google’s Hall of Fame.

Terence Eden:

My wife and I are, yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Oh both of you?

Terence Eden:

Yes. No – well, it was my wife who discovered the bug, and then I reported it, so we’re joint recipients, think.

Sarah Stewart:

What was the bug?

Terence Eden:

So Google Calendar, if you typed up a reminder to yourself which said, ‘Email boss@work.com about pay rise,’ if you put that in the subject line, it would automatically copy it to your boss’ calendar.

Sarah Stewart:

That’s a big bug, isn’t it?

Terence Eden:

Yes. Basically, yes that’s what happened, so we reported it and they fixed it, but finding bugs is good fun. If people find bugs in government, they should tell us, because we’ll fix them.

Sarah Stewart: 

So what does your vision of a future government look like, a successful future government, look like?

Terence Eden:

The government of the future – I hope – will be more open, and it will be more collaborative. I don’t want GDS to be a single government department. I want GDS to be everywhere. I want everyone to know what good looks like and how to code in the open.

I think the government of the future will have fewer barriers. Someone asked me the other day what department I was in, and I said, “GDS.” They went, “No, which subdivision of GDS?” I haven’t got a clue. I just work for GDS. Really, I work for Cabinet Office. If I’m completely honest, I work for the civil service.

If someone from DWP says, “I need some help with something,” I’m going to go and help them. Of course I will. If someone from anywhere in the country in the civil service says, “We need some help with this,” why wouldn’t I go and help them? I think we need to break down these barriers. If the best team at content design happens to be in Defra, or wherever, great, we should be learning from them. They should be teaching us.

I would love it not only if the government of the future was more open, and more transparent, and more open source, and used more open standards, but that the civil service was really just one civil service. It wasn’t just based in London, and that we can… It’s not based in London now, but that we felt free to move more or less anywhere within it and give people the help, and the advice, and the support that they need, and learn from anyone in any department, because we are not Defra, and DWP, and Department for Health and anything else. We’re not. We are one team, OneTeamGov.

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s really interesting that you've said that – we’re actually recording a podcast with Kit Collingwood from OneTeamGov and DWP fame in December. Okay final question – you’ve hacked your vacuum, your car is on Twitter, your house turns off when you leave it – what’s next?

Terence Eden: 

The next thing that I’m interested in is biohacking. So I’ve got some fake nails, just like fashion nails, and they’ve got a small bit of computer circuitry in, which is kind of like your Oyster card. It’s an NFC chip, and they glow when I put them around electromagnetic fields, so, if I’m on the tube and I put my hand against an Oyster card reader, my fingertips glow.

You can also put data on there, so I can transfer data from my fingertips. That’s kind of silly, but I’m fascinated by how we can enhance people.

What are the things that we can put on us and in us which will make us better? That’s what I’m interested in.

Sarah Stewart:

Terence, thank you so much.

Terence Eden:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Sarah Stewart:

That brings us to the end of this month’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and that you’ll listen again next month when we talk to another interesting person about interesting things. Until then, farewell.

 

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #1 - An interview with Neil Williams

September 28, 2018
00:0000:00

 

 

In this episode, we interview outgoing head of GOV.UK Neil Williams about his time at GDS, learning about agile and scaling the nation's website.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Angus Montgomery: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS and for this episode I’m going to be talking to Neil Williams, who is the head of GOV.UK. And Neil is leaving GDS shortly for an exciting new job, so we’re going to be talking to him about that and also talking to him about his time at GDS, because he’s been here since the very beginning. So I hope you enjoy this episode and let’s go straight into the conversation.

Neil Williams: I'm going to Croydon Council. So leaving not only GDS-

Angus Montgomery: South London?

Neil Williams: South London. South London is the place to be, I have to say. Yes, not only leaving GDS, but leaving the Civil Service actually, because local government is not the Civil Service of course, to go and work in Croydon as Chief Digital Officer for the council there. They've got a lot of ambition, and it’s a really exciting time for Croydon. People laugh when I say that.

Angus Montgomery: I just laughed as well. I didn’t mean to.

Neil Williams:  Croydon has this reputation that is completely unwarranted, and we’re going to prove the world wrong. It’s changing massively. It’s already gone through a lot of change. You're probably aware of some stuff. It’s got a Boxpark. There’s a lot of reporting around the Westfield/Hammerson development that might be happening, which we very much hope is happening. Also Croydon Tech City. So Croydon’s got a lot of growth in the tech industry, tech sector. Fantastic companies starting up and scaling up in Croydon, and that’s all part of the story.

Plus the stuff that’s more in my wheelhouse, that I've been doing here in GDS around transforming services. Making the public services that Croydon provides to residents and business to be as good as they should be. As good as everything else that people expect in their day to lives using digital services these days.

Angus Montgomery: So not much on your plate then?

Neil Williams: It’s quite a big job. I'm excited about it. There’s a lot about it that’s new, which is kind of giving me a new lease of energy, the fact that I've got this big challenge to face and lots of learning to do.

Which reminds me a lot about how I felt when I first working with GDS in fact. Just how exciting I found the prospect of coming and working for this organisation, and being part of this amazing revolution. I'm feeling that again actually about the job in Croydon, [00:02:33] about the work to be done there.

It seems like the right time. It’s a perfect time and place, where I am in my career, those things coming together. It’s a really good match. So it came up, and I put in for it, and lo and behold I am now Chief Digital Officer in Croydon Council from mid-October.

Angus Montgomery: You’ve been at GDS since before the beginning, haven’t you? Seven, eight years?

Neil Williams:  Yes, I was working it out this morning. It’s seven years and two months. I was 34 when I started working in GDS. I'm 42 now. I just had my birthday last week.

Angus Montgomery: Full disclosure.

Neil Williams: Yes. That’s maybe too much information to be sharing. I didn’t have grey hair when I started. My youngest child was just born, and he’s nearly eight now. So yes, it’s been a really big part of my life.

Angus Montgomery: So you can track your late 30s and early 40s through images of you standing in front of number 10?

Neil Williams: Yes, and unfortunately quite a few embarrassing pictures of me on the GDS flicker. (Laughter) There have been a few regrettable outfits for celebrations and milestones launching GOV.UK, and celebrating GOV.UK birthdays, where looking back on it I may not have worn those things if I had known it was going to be on the internet forever. (Laughter)

Angus Montgomery: Now you say that, there’s an image of you… I'm trying to remember. I think it’s at the Design Museum, when GOV.UK won the Designs of the Year, and you're wearing a Robocop t-shirt. (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Yes, I am. I can tell that story if you like. That’s one of my proudest GDS moments, I think. Maybe we will get to that later. Do you want me to do it now?

Angus Montgomery: Well, no. Let us know where that came from, because this is…

Well, just as a bit of context, because I've gone straight into that, but you’ve been head of GOV.UK since the beginning, and in 2012, shortly after GOV.UK launched, it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award, which is an incredible accolade. I can’t remember what it beat, but I think it beat several…

 That’s one of those awards where they judge things like buildings, and cars, and new products, and mad graphic design. So for a government website to win that award was really incredible, I think.

Neil Williams: Yes. Actually, we were talking about it the other day, and Mark Hurrell, the head designer on GOV.UK, he said it’s actually the first time a website ever won that award, which I had completely forgotten. Yes, it was amazing. That was 2013.

We had launched GOV.UK in 2012, as in replacing Directgov and Business Link, which were the previous big super sites for public services. Then we were well into the next phase, which was shutting down and replacing all of the websites of departments of state.

I was very much working on that bit of it at the time. My head was down and working very attentively, in this fairly crazy timescale, to shut down those websites, and starting to look at how we were going to start closing down the websites of 350 arms-length bodies. A huge project.

In the midst of that, in the midst of that frantic busy period, someone approached me. It was Tom Loosemore, Etienne Pollard. One of those early GDS leaders. Saying, “Oh, there’s an award ceremony. We’ve been nominated for an award, and we need some people to go. Can you go to it?”

Angus Montgomery: “We need some people to go.” That’s an attractive… (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Yes. It was just like, “We need a few people to make sure we’re going to be represented there.”

Angus Montgomery: “To fill the seats.” (Laughter)

Neil Williams: I now know that they knew that we were going to win, but I didn’t know that, at all, at the time, and I didn’t really think much of it. “Oh, yes, fine. Yes, I will go along to that. That’s no problem at all.”

I think it was the same day. I'm not sure whether it was that same day or a different day when I was given notice, but anyway, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t dress up for the occasion. So I rock up to the Design Museum in my jeans and in my Robocop t-shirt, an OCP logo on it.

The evening included quite a lot of free alcohol. It was quite a glitzy affair, and I was definitely under-dressed for the occasion, but I thought, “That’s fine. We’re just here to be part of an audience.” Hanging around at the back, having the free canapes, partaking of the plentiful free wine that was being distributed.

Then Griff Rhys Jones, who was presenting the award, gets up on stage and announces the winners in each category, and we won our category. Much triumphant jubilation and celebration.

Then went on to reveal that we won the whole thing. We won the Design of the Year Award as a whole. Which then led to this photo call. By which point I was quite drunk as well. I had no idea this was going to happen.

Yes, so there’s that famous photo of a bunch of GDS people accepting the award, all quite smartly dressed, apart from me letting the side down with my Robocop t-shirt.

Angus Montgomery: Tell me how you got involved in this thing in the first place. You’ve been in the Civil Service before, but you're not a career civil servant, are you? Or you hadn’t been.

Neil Williams: Well, yes. I would like to think of myself as not being a career civil servant. I started in the private sector, in a communications publishing agency. It was a magazine agency.

I thought I wanted to be a journalist actually. I did English at university. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Went into publishing. Was passionate about publishing and the power of the printed word. Distributing information to people. Equipping them with information. Informing people and so forth.

I went into corporate publishing, as a way to learn about publishing, but whilst I was working for that company the internet was becoming a bigger deal, a bigger thing.

I was also mucking around in my spare time with comedy websites. That was known by my employers, who then said, as they were starting to think about, “How do we get in on this?” they asked me if I wanted to run the London office of their new digital offering to their clients.

I leapt at the chance. That was a really good leg up for me. That’s where I learnt about digital, about building websites. So that was a great place, where I learnt…

I said I wanted to be in publishing and journalism. The information is power thing excited me, and of course doing that digitally, doing that online, massively more so. More empowering people.

I fell in love instantly with the immediacy of what you get with publishing to the web, and providing services over the web, and getting the feedback, and being able to improve based on the fact that you can see in real time what users are doing. That’s been my passion ever since. After a few years of doing that…

That is now a dwindling small part of my career, when you look back on it, so it’s probably true to say that I am a career civil servant. A few years in a digital agency. Then I wanted to see the other side of things, and be client side, and see something through to its outcomes, rather than just build a thing and hand it over. I joined the Civil Service. I joined the government communications profession.

Angus Montgomery: I know it well.

Neil Williams: And my first gig was in the Department for Trade and Industry, as it was then, as an assistant information officer. A young, eager civil servant.

There were some digital elements to that job, but actually quite a lot of my earliest Civil Service gig was going to Number 10 every week to do the grid meeting, which is the Alastair Campbell era. It’s still the process now.

And I was moving around within the department. So there’s an eight-year period, which I'm not going to go into in any detail,where I moved around between different departments, doing digital things.

I worked my way up the greasy pole of the Civil Service. From a web manager, managing a bit of a website and looking after the content and the information architecture, through to running whole teams, running the website, intranet, social media side of things.

During those years I did a lot of work on product development, around online consultation tools and digital engagement platforms. And lots of frustration actually. So this brings us to the beginning of the GDS story.

Angus Montgomery: This is the 2010 Martha Lane Fox bombshell?

Neil Williams: Yes. The old way, the traditional way, and this is pretty common not just in government but everywhere, websites sprung out of being a thing led by communications teams. “It’s just another channel for us to do our communications.”

And it is, but it is also, as we all now know, the way that people do their business and transact. People come to your website to do a thing, to use a service, to fulfil a need. It took a long time for the Civil Service to recognise that.

For many years myself and others in the digital communications teams within departments were getting increasingly frustrated. A lone voice really. Trying within our departments to show them the data that we had and go, “Look, people are coming for things that we’re not providing them with. We need to do a better job of this.”

A lot of that falling on deaf ears, not getting prioritised in the way that it needed to, and also clearly fragmented across thousands of websites, across all of these organisations.

A lot of great work was done before GDS, and this story has been told on the History of GDS series of blog posts, which if people haven’t seen are really well worth looking at.

Tom Loosemore has talked about this before, about standing on the shoulders of giants. There was enormous effort, over many, many years, to digitise government, to centralise things, to put users first.

Directgov and Business Link were the current incarnations of that, of a service-led approach, but it was just a small proportion of the overall service offering from government, and it was still really quite comms focused. The conversations were about reach, and there was advertising to try and promote the existence of these channels, etc.

Lots of it was written from the perspective of the department trying to tell people what they should do, rather than understanding what it is that people are trying to do and then designing things that meet those needs.

So GDS. In 2010, this is a really well-told story, and people are pretty familiar with it now, but 2010 Martha Lane Fox was commissioned to review the government’s website, particularly Directgov. She took a broader remit, and looked at the whole thing, and, in summary, said, “Start again.”

Angus Montgomery: ‘Revolution, not evolution’.

Neil Williams: ‘Revolution, not evolution’. Yes, that was the title.

Angus Montgomery: And everyone at GDS, or who has been at GDS, has said, like Tom, that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and huge amounts of work was done beforehand, but why do you think Martha’s report was such a turning point? Because it was, because it led to a huge amount of change.

Neil Williams: Yes. It’s a really pithy, succinct little letter. It’s not reams and reams of paper. It was just quite a simple call to action really. Which was to say, “You need to take ownership of the user experience, in a new organisation, and empower a new leader, and organisation under that leader, to do that, to take a user-led approach.” That was the different thing. Take a user-led approach, and to use the methods that are being used everywhere used.

Government had not yet really caught up to what was going on in the wider technology industry around ways of working, agile and so forth, around working iteratively, experimentally, and proving things early. Rather than upfront requirement specs, and then out comes something at the end which you then later discover doesn’t work.

Those were the two things really. It was that focus on user needs, and work in that different way, which was bringing skills into government that hadn’t been here before. Design, and user research, and software development skills that hadn’t previously been done in-house. It had always been outsourced.

Angus Montgomery: So it was a clear and simple strategy, or strategic direction, from Martha Lane Fox’s report. There was a clear mandate. This has been talked about a lot, that we had, or GDS had, Francis Maude backing it at a very high level, and giving it the mandate to-

Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. That was the other thing. It wasn’t just Martha’s letter. It was absolutely a kind of perfect storm of political will and the timing being right.

Yes, the Martha letter came out when I was Head of Digital Comms, or some title like that, at the Department for Business. I had moved around between departments. Ended up back in the Department for Business again.

It was advocating something pretty radical, that would be a threat really to the digital comms view, to a comms-led view of controlling our channels. That was an interesting situation to find myself in, right?

I was reading this stuff from Martha and thinking, “This is brilliant. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is absolutely the right thing.” But then internally my job required me to do some more maybe circumspect briefing to the minister and to the director of comms about, “Actually, well, this is a risk to us.”

So I was doing both of those things. I was talking internally about the positives of what this could mean for government, but the risks to our organisation, but publicly I blogged…

I thought, “This is brilliant.” I blogged enthusiastically, because I had a personal blog at the time, about my thoughts on how this could be the beginning of something really exciting.

That’s the thing that led me to meeting Tom Loosemore. Tom Loosemore, who as we all know is one of the early architects of GDS, saw my blog post, and got in touch and said, “Let’s have a chat.” And that’s how my journey into GDS started. It started by answering that email from Tom Loosemore and going for pizza with him.

Angus Montgomery: The power of blogging.

Neil Williams: Yes. We had a chat over pizza, where he was talking about his ideas for getting an alpha. Getting a team together that could produce something quickly, as a sort of throwaway prototype, that would show a different way of working.

Tom was saying stuff that was exciting but contained many new words. (Laughter) He was talking about alphas and agile ways of working. I don’t know what these things are.

Angus Montgomery: Now we’re at a stage, at GDS and throughout government, where agile is a touchstone of how we work, and it’s accepted that doing things in agile is doing things better, and there’s lots of opportunity for people to learn how that works, and what that means, and apply that to the things that they do, but at the time, as you said, this didn’t really exist in government. You, as someone who had worked in government, probably didn’t know what agile was.

Neil Williams: No.

Angus Montgomery: How did you learn about it, and how did you know that this was the right approach?

Neil Williams: A mix of reading up on it. Initially just going home and Googling those new words and finding out about these ways of working. But also it immediately spoke to me.

I had been through several years of several projects where I had felt just how awful and frustrating it is to build websites in a waterfall way. I've got some very difficult experiences that I had at [BEIS], when we rebuilt the website there, and it was project managed by a very thorough project manager in a waterfall way.

I was the Senior Responsible Officer, I think, or Senior User I think it is in PRINCE2 language, for the website. As the website was progressing we had a requirements document upfront, all that way of working. We were specifying, with as much predicting the future and guesswork as we possibly can, a load of stuff, and writing it down, around, ‘This is what the website needs to do. This is what the publishing system needs to do’. Then handing that over to a supplier, who then starts to try and interpret that and build that.

During that process, seeing as the thing is emerging, and we’re doing the user acceptance testing and all of that stuff on it, that this is just far away from the thing that I had in my head. So there’s already a gap between the written word and then the meaning that goes into the heads of the people who are then building that thing.

Then also all of the change that’s occurring at the same time. Whilst we are building that thing the world is not staying still, and there is an enormous amount of change in our understanding around what we want that thing to do.

Trying to get those changes in, but facing the waterfall approach, rigid change control process, and just feeling like I'm banging my head against a brick wall. It was really frustrating. Then when I…

Back to the question about how do I learn about agile, and some of these new concepts, it was really only when I got in there. I knew what the bad thing felt like, and I knew that that wasn’t right. I knew that you absolutely need to embrace the change as part of the process, embrace learning as part of the process of delivering something as live and ever changing as a website.

Then I came in as a product manager, initially part-time, and then full-time when GDS was properly established and able to advertise a role, and started working with Pete Herlihy, who is still here now in GDS.

Angus Montgomery: Yes, on Notify.

Neil Williams: Yes, he’s lead product manager on Notify now, but back then he was delivery manager.

Again, Tom Loosemore was making stuff happen behind the scenes. He was the person who introduced me and Pete. He said something along the lines of, “Neil’s the guy who knows what needs to happen, and Pete’s the guy who knows how to make it happen. You two should talk.” So we did.

I learnt a lot of what I now know from working with Pete and working as we then built out a team. Working with some terrific talented software developers, designers, content designers, and so forth, and user researchers, in a multidisciplinary way.

Learning on the job what it meant to be a product manager. Obviously, reading up about it. I went on a few courses, I think, too. But mostly learning on the job.

Zooming back out a little bit to the GDS career experience, I've learnt so much here. I've never learnt as much probably in the whole of the rest of my career as I've learnt in my time here.

Angus Montgomery: Because that first year was learning about agile, putting a team together. Learning how to build this thing. Learning how to land it. At what stage did you realise, “Oh, we’ve done this now. This thing is landing, and it’s getting big, and it’s successful. Oh, wow. We’re in charge of a piece of national infrastructure now”?

Neil Williams: That’s an interesting question. I always knew it would. We knew what we were building at the start. We knew we were building something-

Angus Montgomery: So you never had any doubts that this was going to work?

Neil Williams: Oh, God, yes. We had absolute doubt. The prevailing view when we started was that, “This will not work.”

Not internally. Internally, it was certainly a stretch goal. (Laughter) It was ambitious, and it felt a little bit impossible, but in a really exciting way. That is one of the key ingredients of success, is you want your team to feel like something is only just about doable. (Laughter) There’s nothing more motivating than a deadline and a nearly impossible task. Also a bunch of naysayers saying, “This will never work.” And that really united us as a team.

Angus Montgomery: So what then happened? Because I think we talk quite a lot about the early years, and a lot has been written, obviously, and GDS was blogging like crazy in those days about the early stages, and how quickly you built the thing, and how quickly you transitioned onto it.

One thing that we have talked about as GDS, but probably not in as great detail, is what happened when it then got big, and you had to deal with issues of scale, and you had to deal with issues of…

Something a lot of people on GOV.UK have talked to me about is tech debt. That you built this thing very quickly and you had quite a bit of tech debt involved. How did you deal with that? Presumably you always knew this was a problem you were going to have to face.

Neil Williams: Yes, to a degree. That 14 people that did a bit on alpha scaled very rapidly to being 140 people. There were lots of teams working in parallel, and building bits of software just in time, like I was just talking about. Just in time for…

“We’re not going to build anything we don’t have to build. We’re just going to build what’s necessary to achieve the transition, to shut these other websites down and bring them all in.”

But that approach means you're laying stuff on top of other stuff, and things were getting built by different teams in parallel, adding to this growing code base, and in some cases therefore duplicative stuff happening. Where maybe we’ve built one publishing system for publishing a certain kind of format of content, another publishing system for publishing another kind of format of content.

Then in the process we’ve ended up with two different ways of doing something like attachments, asset management. Then we’ve got complexity, and we’ve got bits of code that different teams don’t know how to change without quite a steep learning curve, and so on. And that was the case everywhere.

Given the pace of how fast we were going, and how ambitious the timescales were for shutting down what turned out to be 1,882 websites… (Laughter) Exactly. It was incredible.

We knew, yes. We knew. It was talked about. It was done knowingly, that, “We are making things here that we’re going to have to come back to. That are going to be good enough for now, and they’re going to achieve what we need to achieve, but they will need fixing, and they will need replacing and consolidating.”

So we absolutely knew, and there was much talk of it. Quite a lot of it got written down at the time as ‘This is some tech debt that we’re going to definitely need to come back to’. Yes, we weren’t blind to that fact, but I think the degree of it, and the amount of time it took to resolve it, was slightly unexpected.

That’s partly because of massive personnel change as well. Straight off the back of finishing… Well, I say finishing. GOV.UK is never finished. Let’s just get that out there. Always be iterating.

GOV.UK’s initial build, and the transition, and the shutting down, the transition story of shutting down those 1,882 websites, had an end date, and that end date felt like a step change to many people.

As in lots of people came into GDS in those early days to do the disruptive thing. To do the start-up thing. To do Martha’s revolution. Then at that moment of, “Actually, we’ve now shut down the last website,” to lots of those people that felt like, “Now we’re going into some other mode. Now we’re going into actually we’re just part of government now, aren’t we? I don’t know. Do I necessarily want to be part of that?” So there was some natural drifting away of some people.

Plus, also, the budget shrank at that point. The project to do the transition was funded and came to an end. So actually we were going to go down to an operational smaller team anyway. So a combination of attrition, of people leaving anyway, plus the fact that we did need to get a bit smaller.

Also, at that time, that’s when the early founders of GDS left. Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, Ben Terrett left around that time. Which also led to some other people going, “Well, actually, I came here for them. I came here with them. And I'm leaving too.”

So that meant that we had the tech debt to deal with at a time when we also had quite a lot of new stuff. We had all of this unknown and not terribly well-documented code, that was built really quickly, by lots of different people, in different ways. Plus people who weren’t part of that joining the team, and looking at it and going, “Oh, what have we got here? Where do I start with this?” (Laughter)

So it took a long time. I think it’s common in agile software development to underestimate how long things might take. It’s an industry problem that you need to account for.

Angus Montgomery: Well, this is the interesting thing, because it feels to me as an observer that there have been three main stages of GOV.UK so far. There’s the build and transition, which we’ve talked about quite a lot. There’s the growth and sustainability years, I suppose, where you were sorting out the tech debt, and you were making this thing sustainable, and you were dealing with departmental requests, and you were putting in structures, and process, and maturing it.

Now it feels like we’re in a new stage, where a lot of that structural stuff has been sorted out, and that means you can do really exciting things. Like the work that Kate Ivey-Williams, and Sam Dub, and their team have been doing on end-to-end services. The work that’s been going on to look at voice activation on GOV.UK. And the work that’s been done that Nicky Zachariou and her team have been looking at, machine learning, structuring the content. And it feels like now, having sorted out those fundamentals, there’s a whole load of stuff we can do.

Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. We’re iterating wildly again, I would say. (Laughter) We’re back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly again.

Some of the stuff we’re doing now is greenfield stuff. Again, a lot of the ideas we had way back when, in the early days of GDS, about making the publishing system really intuitive, and giving data intelligence to publishers, so that they can understand how services are performing, and see where to prioritise, and get really rich insights about how their stuff as a department is working for users, we’re getting to that now.

We’re starting to rebuild our publishing tools with a proper user-centric design. Which we didn’t do enough of, because we had to focus on the end users more in the early days. It’s great to be doing that now.

We’re also deleting some stuff, which were the mistakes that I made. (Laughter) Which feels good on my way out. Some of the things that we did, that have stuck around way longer than we intended them to, are now being deleted. We’re now able to go, “Actually, we know now, we’ve known for a while, that this isn’t the right solution,” and we’re able to change things more radically.

Yes, we’re doing really exciting stuff. Thanks for mentioning it.

Angus Montgomery: What are you most excited about? Because Jen Allum, who was lead product manager on GOV.UK for a couple of years, I think, she’s taking over now as head of GOV.UK after you leave. What are you most excited about seeing her and the team do? What do you think is the biggest challenge that they face?

Neil Williams: I'm thrilled that Jen is taking over the job. She obviously knows the product, knows the team really, really well, and she’s absolutely brilliant.

There is some incredibly exciting stuff happening right now, which I will be sad not to be here for. You mentioned one of them. That’s the step-by-step navigation product, which is our solution for, “How do you create an end-to-end holistic service that meets a whole user need?”

If you’ve been following GDS at all, which if you're listening to this podcast you probably have, then you will have seen stuff from Lou Downe, Kate Ivey-Williams, many other people, around end-to-end services and what we mean by services and service design. Around good services being verbs and bad services being nouns.

Government has the habit of creating schemes, and initiatives, and forms, and giving them names, and then they stick around for a very long time. Users end up even having to learn those names in some cases.

The classic example is, “I want to SORN my car.” What the hell does that even mean? Whereas actually what they want to do is take their car off the road. It’s an actual thing that an actual human wants to do.

Nearly every interaction or task that you have with government requires more than one thing. You need to look at some content. You might need to transact. You might need to fill in a form. You might need to go and do some stuff that’s not with government. You might need to read something, understand what the rules are, and then go and do something offline.

If you're a childminder you’ve got a step there, which is you’ve got to go and actually set up your space and get it inspected. Then you come back, and there’s more to do with government.

Those things need setting out clearly for people. It’s still the case now. Despite all of the great work that we’ve done on GOV.UK to improve all of this stuff, it’s still far too much the case that people have to do all of that work themselves. They have to piece together the fragments of content, and transactions, and forms that they need to do.

So what we are doing with our step-by-step navigation product is that’s a product output of a lot of thinking that’s been happening in GDS for many years, around, “How do you join services together, end-to-end, around the user?”

We’ve got that product. It’s been tested. It works really, really well. To look at you might just look at it and go, “Well, there’s not much to that, is there? That’s just some numbered steps and some links.”

Yes, it is, but getting something that looks that simple, and that really works, is actually a ton of work, and we’ve put in a huge amount of work into proving that, and testing that, and making sure that really works. Making it as simple as it is.

The lion’s share of that work is actually in the service design, and in the content design, going, “Let’s map out what is… Well, first of all let’s understand what the users need. Then let’s map out what are the many things that come together, in what order, in order to meet that need.”

Angus Montgomery: Before we wrap up I just wanted to ask you to give a couple of reflections on your time at GDS. What’s the thing you're most proud of, or what was your proudest moment?

Neil Williams: That’s tricky. I've been here a long time. I've done a lot of… I say I've done a lot of good stuff. I've been around whilst some really good stuff has happened. (Laughter)

Angus Montgomery: You’ve been in the room. (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Right. I've had a little bit to do with it. It’s got to be the initial build, I think. Other than wearing a Robocop t-shirt to a very formal event, which I'm still proud of, it’s got to be the initial build of GOV.UK and that was the thing that I was directly involved with and it was just the most ridiculous fun I've ever had. I can’t imagine ever doing something as important, or fast paced, or ridiculous as that again.

There were moments during that when… Actually, I don’t think I can even tell that story probably. (Laughter) There were some things that happened just as a consequence of the speed that we were going. There are funny memories. That’s all I'm going to say about that. If you want to-

Angus Montgomery: Corner Neil in a pub or café in South London if you want to hear that story in the future.

What was the scariest moment? Or what was the moment when you thought, “Oh, my God, this might not actually work. This thing might fall apart”? Or were there moments like that?

Neil Williams: I don't know. No, I think we’ve always had the confidence, because of the talent that we’ve brought in, the capability and the motivation that everyone has.

When bad things have happened, when we’ve had security threats or any kind of technical failures, just the way that this team scrambles, and the expertise that we’ve got, just means that I'm always confident that it’s going to be okay. People are here in GDS because they really care,and they’re also incredibly capable. The best of the best.

I'm not saying that’s an organisation design or a process that I would advocate, that people have to scramble when things fail, but in those early days, when GOV.UK was relatively newly launched, and we were going through that transition of from being built to run, those were the days where maybe the operations weren’t in place yet for dealing with everything that might come at us.

There was a lot of all hands to the pump scrambling in those days, but it always came right and was poetry to watch. (Laughter) Those moments would actually be the moments where you would be most proud of the team and to be part of it. When it comes down to it these people are really amazing.

Angus Montgomery: Finally, what’s the thing you are going to miss the most?

Neil Williams: Well, it’s the people, isn’t it? That’s a cheesy thing to say, but it’s genuinely true. I've made some amazing friends here. Some people who I hope I can call lifelong friends. Many people who have already left GDS, who I'm still in touch with and see all the time.

It’s incredible coming into work and working with people who are so likeminded, and so capable, and so trusting of each other, and so funny. I laugh all the time. I come into work and it’s fun. It’s so much fun.

And we’re doing something so important, and we’re supporting each other. The culture is just so good, and the people are what makes that. Cheesy as it may be, it’s you Angus. I'm going to miss you.

Angus Montgomery: It’s all about the people. Oh, thank you. That was a leading question. (Laughter)

Neil Williams, thank you so much for doing that and best of luck in the future. We will miss you lots.

Neil Williams:  Thanks very much. Thank you.

Angus Montgomery: So that wraps up the very first Government Digital Service podcast. I hope you enjoyed it - we’re aiming to do lots more episodes of this, we’re aiming to do around 1 episode a month and we’re going to be talking to lots of exciting and interesting people both inside GDS and outside GDS and we’re going to be talking about things like innovation and digital transformation and user-centred design and all sorts of interesting things like that, so if you’d like to listen to future episodes please go to wherever it is you get your podcasts and subscribe to listen to us in the future. And I hope you enjoyed that episode and I hope you listen to more. Thankyou very much.